PRINT Summer 1984


It was when I said,
“There is no such thing as the truth,”
That the grapes seemed fatter.
The fox ran out of his hole.

—Wallace Stevens1

“The Plot against the Giant,” or, “The Good Man Has No Shape”

TWO THOUSAND FIVE HUNDRED years ago the form-content relationship was a heated philosophical question. Plato thought that content didn’t matter at all: form, he said, really exists by itself, triumphant in its isolation, crystalline as a dawn light that will never be stained by the heat of a morning. Aristotle, after twenty years in Plato’s school, still had a nagging suspicion that the doctrine of pure Form was a priestly trick of some kind. (Hadn’t Plato learned it, after all, from the priests at Heliopolis in Egypt?) It is said that Aristotle, in his own school later, would forego the quest for pure Form and have his students crawling around in the dirt of the garden, classifying types of cabbages.

Plato’s establishment was not, officially, a school. It was tax-exempt as a temple to the Muses, the Goddesses of Art, to whom, inside, pure Form was offered as an object of worship. Aristotle was perplexed by this. The crux came when, after years of waiting, he and the other advanced students were told that at last they would hear Plato’s legendary lecture on The Good. Anticipation was keen; the day arrived. But cabbage-brained Aristotle again emerged perplexed. This much he tells us: All Plato talked about that day was triangles and squares: It was a geometry lesson! The Good was pure Form! Some of the students emerged in Pythagorean rapture. But Aristotle wanted to know: How do you see pure Form? If it is really without content, then it must be transparent, which is to say, invisible. And the master’s answer is there, in the seventh book of the Republic, where Plato hesitates so long before pulling down the veil before the sanctum sanctorum: We see pure Form, he declares, with the Eye of the Soul! Aristotle, like Descartes later, wondered: Where is that Eye? (In the thymus gland, maybe?) Anyway, when Plato died, he didn’t make Aristotle the head of his school, but his cousin, who also had The Eye. Aristotle, perplexed and annoyed, founded his own school and invented natural science. He reasoned that form could only be known through its content, content only through its form. Tit for tat. Yin for yang. This just seemed like plain speaking. Such pairs of dependent terms, like left and right or yes and no, only have meaning in relation to one another and as different from one another. An attempt to split them apart and suppress one, as in Manichaean-type dualisms, can be a communal psychological tragedy—as in the Yawehist worship of Father without Mother, Sky without Earth, and so on. But the opposite attempt—the monistic strategy of declaring the two (for example, form and content) to be the same—simply renders the terms meaningless and abandons them as tools. As soon as one pays attention to how the words work, both pure Form and the Oneness of Form and Content disappear into an invisibility not of transcendence but of linguistic nonmeaning. They go where mistakes in grammar go. They go where the vehicles of metaphors go. They retreat into the Bronze Age myth-talk from whence they emerged, to drift with Amon-Re like mists above the deep.

By the 18th century Plato was finally on the run; the Soul was a laughingstock. The idea of the integral self began to be balanced by attention to the quasimechanical aspects of selfhood. The doctrine of the Soul had always been an argument for unchanging totalitarian statehood—from Old Kingdom Egypt to the aristocrat Plato to the doctrine of the divine right of kings in 18th-century Europe: unchanging Soul and the unchanging State were both expressions of the ideal Order, and both would fall together. David Hume, searching for a unifying principle of self, pried his own thoughts apart and saw that there was nothing in between them; thoughts chased one another through his mind as mechanically as billiard balls, with no unifying principle connecting them. After the tyranny of Soul-ism, anti-Soulism was experienced as freedom. David Hartley, like a modern behaviorist, reduced human motivations to mechanical processes of habit-formations. Julien La Mettrie wrote Man the Machine (1748). Soul was routed, and the dynasties of Europe fell. Soulism did not simply disappear; it crept into a sheltered retreat like Plato’s tax-exempt Temple of the Muses: it crept into art theory and hid there. From the Cambridge Platonists to the Earl of Shaftesbury to Immanuel Kant to Clement Greenberg, it would now be called: the Faculty of Taste. Behind this new, antiseptic name lurks Plato’s Eye of the Soul, and behind that the Udja-Eye of Old Kingdom Egypt, the Eye of Horus, that Sees the Things of Heaven. The Eye of the Soul simply sees contentless Quality as the Eye of Horus sees the Things of Heaven. But only, as Plato pointed out, for one who has specially cleansed that orb, which in most of us remains filthy and dim. And how do you know that someone’s Eye is clean? There’s no way to check it.

This Soulism in art theory was soon joined by an equally myth-based view of history which became the foundation of the formalist evolutionary view of art: that history is driving toward this or that end, and that past events could only have happened as they did. As a disguised assertion of religious Providence, it justifies the establishment of tyrannical authority-structures that claim to express the inner imperative of history. Friedrich Schelling and Georg Hegel, impressed as youths with the ineluctable appearance of the advance of Napoleon, revived the religious myth that history is advancing toward a final perfection in which Spirit, cleansed of the illusion of Matter, will be totally absorbed in itself. Further, Schelling elevated the esthetic faculty above the other two postulated by Kant, the cognitive and the practical: Spirit expressed itself through Art, which was, as Hegel said, “the sensuous appearance of the absolute.” Art-making, then, became the most crucial and urgent of all human activities: by driving art history along the path of formalist evolution toward the goal of pure Spirit/Form, the artist actually hastens (as by a kind of sympathetic magic) the advance of Universal Spirit toward Perfection. (According to this view the self-absorbed rapture of Spirit at the orgasmic End of History would be a kind of universal art event.) This myth, which lays upon art the terrifying responsibility of perfecting Spirit, exerted an unhealthy influence on artists and poets, who, in past cultures, had not been noticeably more tortured, alcoholic, or suicidal than other small producers or artisans.

In this century, we have seen pendulum swings away from the worship of pure Form in various movements that have explicitly rejected the primacy of formalist esthetic values. The basis of the rejection was stated by Marcel Duchamp when, in reply to Pierre Cabanne’s question “What is taste?”, he replied, “Habit.” In an age that has seen that language-systems are conditioned, such an insight was inevitable. Canons of taste, as seen by ethnology and philosophy, must be regarded not as eternal cosmic principles, but as transient cultural habit-formations. The elements praised by formalist critics have specific coded values in their habit-systems. For someone to have “better” taste than others, then, is for that person to sense and exercise the communal habit-system with unusual attention and sensitivity. The exercise of one’s esthetic habit-system on artworks exquisitely expressive of that same system produces a pleasant sense of recognition, identification, and confirmation. The shape of the esthetic habit will change as the web of conditions that contains it changes. Yet only the present habit ever seems real—as the smoking habit is real to one who has it and strangely unimaginable to one who does not. One rarely remembers changing one’s taste—yet the history of the changes is there. This is why there is always more formalist work for artists to do: reshaping the esthetic habit-system for the needs of a new now. Understood in this way, seeing with the Udja-Eye of keen esthetic habit is tragically far from the experience of transcendentally free vision that its proponents have hoped it might be. In fact, it is the opposite: a bondage, a limitation, a groundless prejudice imposed by ambient conditions. Specific habit-systems are defended with actually religious zeal, and to be mistaken has, to the believer, the monstrous import of a religious mistake: it is no less than an indictment of one’s Soul.

The literature of formalist criticism contains, throughout, the odd blindnesses and repressions typical of religious texts, including a system of taboos. One such is an example of euphemia—the obligation to speak only propitious things while acting in a priestly capacity. To study content, the formalists seem to feel, would be like studying the Devil rather than God. Content, as Susan Sontag wrote, was a kind of “philistinism.” To ignore it highmindedly was, then, a sign of virtue, a sign, really, that one was among the elect. Even to look at the question of content would be to leave painting and submit oneself to a degrading invitation. This puritanical avoidance of the question has become institutionalized. But the age of the formalists’ creative blindness—the age of their great insights into the Modernist esthetic habit—is long gone, and the question of content remains. There are those who have made inroads into it from various directions—Walter Benjamin and Louis Althusser, Harold Rosenberg, and Nicolas Calas (to name some important examples)—and those who have significantly clarified the question—Erwin Panofsky and E. H. Gombrich, the philosophers Nelson Goodman and Timothy Binkley—but the simple question has never yet been directly asked and directly answered: What is content, anyway? And, are we involved?

“Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”

Everything we might say about an artwork that is not neutral description of esthetic properties is an attribution of content. (Even value judgments, insofar as they reflect what Althusserian critics call “visual ideology,” are implicit attributions of content.) If there is no such thing as neutral description, then all statements about artworks involve attributions of content, whether acknowledged or not. There are many possible ways to sort these things out; one is on the model of geography—what types of content arise from this or that location in the artwork?

1. Content that arises from the aspect of the artwork that is understood as representational.

This type of content is widely regarded as the least problematical; ironically, this very assumption lies at the heart of a tangled problem. We tend to feel that representation works by a recognizable element of objective resemblance, yet it seems more accurate to say that what we experience as representation is, like esthetic taste, a culturally conditioned habit-response not involving objective resemblance. In fact, it is difficult if not impossible to say what would constitute objective resemblance. And in reverse, the conviction of objective resemblance habituated in our pictorial tradition seems to exercise control over our perception of nature. The pictorial tradition, presented to us as representation of nature, has remade our perception of nature to conform with the conventions of pictures (as Goodman and others have demonstrated in their critiques of representation and, especially, of the tradition of perspectival drawing). The resemblance we seem to see between pictures and nature does not result from the fact that art imitates nature, but from the fact that our perception of nature imitates our perception of art. Seen thusly, just as it seems we can’t think anything that our language can’t formulate, so it seems we can’t see anything that our pictorial tradition does not include or imply.

Representation, then, especially two-dimensional representation, is not an objective imitation, but a conventional symbolic system which varies from culture to culture. What “looks like” nature to an Australian aborigine looks like symbols to us, and vice versa. Virtually every culture has a tradition of representation which it sincerely regards as based on resemblance. Faced with a painting of the Battle of Waterloo, we seem to recognize horses, weapons, warriors, and so on; what we are in fact recognizing are our conventional ways of representing horses, weapons, warriors, and so on. The fact that it is specifically the Battle of Waterloo must come from the next level of content.

2. Content arising from verbal supplements supplied by the artist.

Duchamp’s famous remark that the most important thing about a painting is its title points to a weakness in the “purely optical” theory of art. Artists frequently issue verbal supplements in an attempt to control the interpretation of their work, and even the most optical of critics cannot help but be influenced by them. In reference to a painting of horses, and weapons, and warriors, for example, the title The Battle of Waterloo injects a specific content arising not from optical features but from words. Abstract and reductionist art, as much as representational, has been dependent on content supplied in this way. For example, it would be virtually impossible (as Harold Rosenberg once remarked) to distinguish the Minimal from the Sublime without such verbal supplements as Barnett Newman’s cabalistic titles, the published interviews with Frank Stella and Donald Judd, and so on. Robert Smithson’s essays have controlled the interpretations of his works, as Yves Klein’s essays have of his. This quality goes back, really, to the beginnings of art: to Pheidias’ identification of a certain nude male sculpture as Zeus rather than, say, Poseidon or Apollo, to the texts accompanying Egyptian tomb paintings, to the shaman’s explanatory song in front of his paintings. It is as important today as it ever was.

3. Content arising from the genre or medium of the artwork.

This type of content shifts as ambient cultural forces shift. In the 1960s in America, for example, a contentual dichotomy between painting and sculpture arose. Painting came to imply a lack of direct involvement in experience, an absorption in indirect, distanced preoccupations. Sculpture, on the other hand, was understood, even when representational, as a real presence of objecthood, since it occupied the same space the viewer occupied, the space of embodied life. From this ethical dichotomy arose much of the dynamic of the art of the 1960s and ’70s. The radical new genres were associated with sculpture, performance being called “living sculpture,” installations “environmental sculpture,” and so on. Painting was associated with the old values of convention, rather than actuality. For an artist to choose to work in oils on canvas was seen as a reactionary political statement—whereas in the 1950s oil and canvas had signified freedom, individuality, and existentialism. This dynamic was at the root of the great acceleration, in the 1960s and ’70s, of the project of sculpturizing the painting, of asserting it as an object in real space rather than as a window into illusionistic space. Three-dimensional objects were added to canvases to link the representational surface to sculptural presence. Shaped canvases were similarly motivated. Explorations of ways to combine colors without producing a figure-ground relationship were another aspect of the effort to produce objects that, while recognizably paintings, were not compromised by suggestions of representation. The content inherent in the media and genres had attained political and cultural significance that asserted itself alongside the significance of the art objects themselves.

History can provide countless examples of this type of content, not least the distinction between popular and elitist media (in ancient Greece, for example, the vase painting versus the sculpture) and that between male and female media (for example, in neolithic societies which restricted pottery-making and basket-making, that is, vessel-making in general, to women’s groups).

4. Content arising from the material of which the artwork is made.

Within the category of sculpture in the 1960s and ’70s, an artist working marble representationally was at one level making a statement opposed to that of the artist working with industrial I-beams or fire. Traditional art materials, industrial materials, esoteric high-tech materials, absurdist materials (like Ed Ruscha’s chocolate), neoprimitive materials (like Eric Orr’s bone and blood), pantheistic materials (Klein’s fire, and so on), deceptive self-disguising materials (plastic that looks like plaster, wood prepared to look like stone)—all these decisions by the artist carry content quite as much as form. They are judgment pronouncements that the art viewer picks up automatically without necessarily even thinking of them as content. They are statements of affiliation to or alienation from certain areas of cultural tradition, as, say, the use of industrial I-beams represents a celebration, or at least an acceptance, of urban industrial culture, the use of marble or ceramic suggests nostalgia for the pre-Industrial Revolution world.

5. Content arising from the scale of the artwork.

The New Kingdom Egyptian custom of sculpting pharaohs and their consorts much larger than life (as at Abu-Simbel) is an obvious assertion of political content, a portrayal of the hereditary monarchy and its representatives as awesomely given, like those parts of nature—sea, sky, desert, mountain—beside which ordinary human power and stature seem trivial. Such channels of content are not objective and absolute but culturally shifting: it is possible to conceive a society that would associate unusual smallness with special power or efficacy. In the Roman empire an emperor was sculpted during his lifetime about life-size; after death and deification, about twice life-size. Obviously, decisions of scale have formal significance; their contentual significances should be equally obvious. John Berger among others has pointed out that the portability of the easel painting was a signifier of private property. The increased scale of paintings from Barnett Newman onward suggests a more public arena—a society dominated by large institutions rather than by private individuals. The huge scale of many paintings today functions in part as a denial of transiency through an implied reconstitution of the architectural support. Scale always has content, yet we read it so quickly that we hardly notice.

6. Content arising from the temporal duration of the artwork.

The Platonist view that underlies the masterpiece tradition was stated by the Roman poet Seneca: “Vita brevis est, ars longa”: life is short, art long. The artist’s work, that is, was expected to outlive him or her. This hope went back at least to Sappho (6th century B.C.), who said that her poems would bring her immortality. The time-reality in which the artwork lived was not precisely historical time: its proper time dimension was a posterity conceived as a mingling of historical time and eternity—the artwork would survive through historical time forever, like Sappho’s unfading roses. With it something of the artist’s Soul (its trace at least) also became immortal. In terms of Greek philosophy, the artwork has crossed a metaphysical boundary like that at the level of the moon, below which things die, above which, not. Great art, in other words, was regarded as having captured something of deity—as Quintilian said of Pheidias’ Zeus. That divine spark inside the artwork is its immortal Soul, which enables it, like the magical ritual, to penetrate through to higher metaphysical realms and to act as a channel to conduct higher powers downward while yet keeping them pure. We are all familiar with this view. Even in comedies, artists seek “immortality.” One silly poet of the Roman Empire is survived only by a scrap of verse saying that his oeuvre would outlast the ages.

This view of artworks goes back to times when they were sanctified objects made for use in rituals. It is primitive magic plain and simple, which ritually abolishes historical time. It typified Egyptian tomb art, which portrayed the places and things of eternity and was itself magically equivalent to them; it goes back probably to those Magdalenian paintings in the distant depths of caves, beyond the reach of the changes of night and day. Yet despite the extreme primitiveness of its beginnings this theory of art came into Romantic Europe whole, and has survived to the present day. Goethe quite as much as Propertius—and Dylan Thomas quite as much as Goethe—expected to be singing his poems in a chariot driven by the Muses toward Heaven.

Works with exaggeratedly durable materials—such as the granite in which the Egyptians carved pharaohs—participate in this Platonic daydream of transcending the web of cause and effect here below. The idea, of course, is integral to the formalist Modern tradition, which is throughout solidly founded on primitive thoughts and intentions. It is why the artwork is held to have no relation to socioeconomic affairs: it has transcended conditionality and, by capturing a spark of the divine, has become an ultimate. Signs of this metaphysic virtually ooze from the works made on its assumption, which can be detected not only by the durability of their materials but also by the pomposity that often surrounds their esthetic displays.

Just as clearly, an opposite metaphysic is asserted by works made in deliberately ephemeral modes or materials—a metaphysic affirming flux and process and the changing sense of selfhood. The obsessive expectation of posterity is linked with the belief in Soul and constitutes, in effect, a claim that one has a Soul. Works affirming flux involve the opposite assumption, that the self is a transient situation arising from the web of conditions and subject to its changes. Andy Warhol’s idea of 15-minute fame applies here—but with some irony, as it is involved in his own claim to lasting fame.

7. Content arising from the context of the work.

When the work leaves the artist’s studio, what route does it take into what part of the world? This decision always has political content. Mail Art and other strategies to bypass the channels of commodification are expressions of resistance to the processes of commodity fetishism and are gestures toward the abandonment of exchange value and the regaining of use value. Other kinds of content cling to specific contextual situations. The release of a commodifiable esthetic object into the marketing network often carries with it an opposite burden of content. It wants to be bought, and like anything that wants to be bought its attempts to ingratiate itself with prospective buyers are obvious, no matter that it may have been made by a monument of integrity such as Jackson Pollock. These are things that one must cock one’s head slightly differently to see—and then at once they become obvious. All art is site-specific to that degree. Declaredly site-specific art involves selection of context as a major contentual statement: Is the work protected apart in a distant fenced compound of the New Mexico desert? Or is it thrown down in one section or another of an urban downtown? The contentual aspects of such decisions are as important as are their formal aspects.

8. Content arising from the work’s relationship with art history.

When the historicist drive is greatly exacerbated, as at the height of the Greenberg era, there is also a mythic-millennialist content which carries with it a weight of German metaphysics and residual Neo-Platonist spirituality. The myth of the evolution toward the innocent Eye suggests a drive toward the paradise at the End of History. The opposite of this complete affirmation of art history as a cosmic-spiritual directionality is an iconoclastic approach, sometimes expressed in deliberate primitivism. Yet in a sense this type of movement is an attempt to roll back the tradition of vision to the earlier phase of innocence, the paradise before history. These two movements, though opposite, complement one another.

The most common mode of content arising from the work’s relationship to art history is in the use of allusions and quotations to assert a special relationship with some other work or tradition of works. James McNeill Whistler’s introduction of references to Japanese painting and the Cubist references to African art are examples of such content, commenting, in both cases, on the closedness of the Western tradition and suggesting alternative esthetic codes beyond it. Lately, the most common type of allusion has been to earlier works in one’s own tradition. This level of content is so important to our present moment that I will discuss it in detail later.

9. Content that accrues to the work as it progressively reveals its destiny through persisting in time.

I mean here much what Walter Benjamin meant when he said that a man who died at age 30 would forever after be regarded as a man who, at whatever stage of his life, would die at age 30. Whatever occurs to a work as its history unfolds becomes part of the experience of the work, and part of its meaning, for later generations. Duchamp added content to the Mona Lisa, Tony Shafrazi to Guernica, and what’s-his-name to Michelangelo’s Saint Peter’s Pietà. The fact that Greenberg used Pollock’s works as proofs of the idea of contentless painting is now part of the content of those paintings.

10. Content arising from participation in a specific iconographic tradition.

Iconography is a conventional mode of representing without the supposition that natural resemblance is involved. Thus to Christians blue may be felt as Mary’s color without a supposition that it looks like Mary. Through iconographic conventions, identifications and comments are made through conventional signals. A Christian, for example, sees not a human woman talking to a bird-winged man, but the Annunciation. To a Hindu a crowned man on a bird is Vishnu and Garuda, with all the myths and feelings associated with them called instantly into play. At less conscious levels are iconographic messages in movies, from the white and black hats in early Westerns to, say, clothing semiotics in Scarface. Context signals us toward one response or another: the telephone means different things in love films and gangster films, and so on.

Whether some widely distributed iconographic conventions are based on innate psychological foundations, such as Jungian archetypes, is an unanswerable question, but it is clear that inherited conventions of this type saturate our responses and are effective in a hidden way in many artworks. One critical approach to 20th-century art that has been very little used, yet is remarkably fruitful, is to subject it to interpretation in terms of the iconographic stream that goes back, in both East and West, to the ancient Near East and beyond. Willem de Kooning’s “Women,” for example, may profitably be compared with goddess-representations from Hindu Kali to Egyptian Isis to the leopard goddess of Çatal Hüyük.

11. Content arising directly from the formal properties of the work.

The formalist idea that abstract art lacks content is rightly seen today as archaic. The associative and conceptualizing activities of the human mind go on constantly and transpire in an instant. We see everything within a frame of meaning. If perceptions truly had no content whatever they would be blank moments in consciousness and would leave no trace in memory. At one level, formal configurations are ontological propositions. Merely by shaping energy one models the real; every grasping or shaping is a rhetorical persuasion for a view of reality. Critics commonly have asserted that music has no content. But clearly Beethoven presents reality as stormy, turbulent, and full of passionate striving, while Bach presents it as serene, cool hyper-realms of sensuous mathematical order. A Pollock drip painting asserts flux and indefiniteness of identity as qualities that can be found in the world. This tautological interface between form and content is not a mystical attempt to unify opposites. It simply means that a work demonstrates a type of reality by embodying it. This is, in effect, a representation of concepts; it is based on a process like that of metaphor, and overlaps somewhat with both iconography and representation.

This level of content is involved in value judgments, since it relates especially closely to the concept of visual ideology (though visual ideology arises from all levels of content at once); hence, it confuses esthetic issues somewhat. The assertion by Althusserian critics that esthetic feeling is merely and exclusively a response to visual ideology is based on the Lacanian model of how the self constitutes itself from the surrounding cultural codes and then, looking at these codes again, seems to recognize itself in them. Whether a purely esthetic level of response can ever be isolated from the encroachment of this process is a major question in art today.

12. Content arising from attitudinal gestures (wit, irony, parody, and so on) that may appear as qualifiers of any of the categories already mentioned.

This level of content usually involves a judgment about the artist’s intentions. The desire to persuade, for example, is a form of intentionality that saturates some works and involves itself in all their effects. John Keats referred to such a situation when he wrote, “We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us.” Our word propaganda means much the same. In irony, wit, and so on, some level of content is presented by the artist with indications that his or her attitude toward it is not direct and asseverative but indirect and perverse. The process is complex. The viewer’s mind compares the statement received with another hypothetical statement which the mind constructs as representing the normal or direct version, and by contrast with which the abnormal and indirect approach can be perceived and measured. Thus ironic indirection, entering into any other category of content, criticizes that content at the same time it states it, and alters the charge of meaning accordingly.

13. Content rooted in biological or physiological responses, or in cognitive awareness of them.

Various claims have been made about types of communication that operate on a purely physiological level. (In fact, formalism, with its “purely optical” trend, was a claim of this type, while with its “faculty of taste” it introduced a supernatural ally to the optic nerve.) Sebastiano Timpanaro and others have suggested that some types of subject matter, such as sex and death, appeal to us because we are organisms subject to death and involved in sexual reproduction; these responses, then, are prior to socioeconomic acculturation. Contentual readings that may be closer to pure physiological responses would include the stirring of the genitals in response to pictures of sexual subjects, the phenomenon of fainting at the sight of blood, or of becoming nauseous from viewing gory pictures, and so on. This is the level of content that is often denounced as “sensationalism”—sex and violence—with the denunciation presumably based on a sense of how easy it is to construct images that will elicit such responses. Some psychological research has suggested innate responses to colors, blue for example arousing feelings of aggression and pink of peacefulness. (There is an odd parody here of what the formalists sometimes called the ”feeling" of a color.)

Perhaps the psychoanalytic content associated with the theories of D. W. Winnicott belongs in this category, on the grounds that it arises from memories of primordial phases in the development of the organism. In relation to painting, Winnicott’s work suggests (not for the first time) an equation between the figure-ground relationship on the one hand and the ego-world relationship on the other. Work that emphasizes the ground, or an ambiguous condition in which figure is almost completely merged into ground, expresses the ego’s desire to dissolve itself into a more generalized type of being, on the remembered model of the infant’s sleep on its mother’s breast. Work that emphasizes figure, or clear separation of figure and ground, expresses a sense of ego-clarity and a fear of ego-loss, or of the loss of the clear boundaries between ego and world. (In more traditional terms, these are, respectively, the Dionysian and the Apollonian.) All artworks, I think (perhaps all human actions of any type) express an attitude on this question, no matter what else they express. In some cases this question is brought into the foreground as a primary artistic content; Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, Ad Reinhardt, Agnes Martin, and others have all portrayed the moment when ego begins to differentiate itself from the dual-unity (as Geza Roheim called it) with the mother’s body. These artists saw in their own work a metaphysical moment that is a correlate of this psychoanalytic moment: the subject of “Creation,” “Beginning,” “Day One,” “the Deep,” and so on—the first emergence of differentiated things from the primal abyss of potentiality (compare Winnicott’s term “potential space,” which also correlates metaphysically with prime matter). Seen in these metaphysical terms this content can also be placed in the category of content arising from the formal properties of the work by a process like that of metaphor.

THIS LIST OF 13 CATEGORIES is like a series of sample sightings of some great beast (Meaning) whose behavior is too complex to be fully formulated. As long as we chose to look for different ways to sort these things out we would find them. The categories I have presented overlap and interpenetrate at various places. (It would be foolish to expect a crisp set of categories from an activity of mammals.) Furthermore, as long as we chose to look for more ways in which the mind reads meaning out of an artwork, we would find them, too. Each possible network of relations between categories is itself another means of conveying a precise, if complex, content, and the possible networks and meta-networks of relations among the 13 listed above proceed toward infinity.

The relation between content arising from representation and content arising from formal properties is a prominent example of this type of interaction. To show Wellington at Waterloo with Goyaesque grotesquerie, or with expressionistically fraying edges denying the integrity of ego, would add to the subject matter a thematic content involving denial of heroic integrity, or some such. Similarly, grandiosity of scale can conflict with triviality of subject matter, as in much Pop art. Indeed, conflicts between all the levels can occur, and in infinite regresses of complexity which cannot be individually defined here. A work that features contradictions among its levels of content thereby gains yet another level involving concepts like paradox, inner struggle, tension, and negation of meaning-processes. On the other hand, works that exhibit a high degree of harmony or mutual confirmation among the various levels of content tacitly model the real as integrated, whole, and rich in meaning, somewhat in the manner of the traditional masterpiece.

Not all works, of course, have all levels of content. Abstract art, for example, has eliminated naive realist representationalism. The number of levels that are in fact discernibly present (or absent) provides us with yet another level of content. Works in both the Minimalist and the Sublime directions, for example, exhibit an attempt to eliminate content or at least to reduce the number of contentual levels present in the work. This attempt in itself declares or acts out a new level of content; no work ever attains the zero-degree of content, because the concept of a zero-degree of content is itself a content. In combination with other levels (primarily verbal supplements by the artist) this content may express the Minimalist ethic, or the Sublimist, or an impersonalist ethic, as in much International-style architecture. In 20th-century painting this anticontentual content has been of enormous importance. From Malevich to Klein to Newman attempts were made to represent concepts like void, emptiness, prime matter, and the absolute, by plastic analogues of the characteristics of solitary grandeur, nondifferentiation, and potentiality. In contrast, works of the traditional masterpiece type—from the Sistine ceiling to Guernica—tend to articulate as many levels of content as possible in their portrayal of a full-bodied sense of rich, meaningful involvement in life.

This list of contents that arise among categories could be extended indefinitely. What is essential is that we begin to appreciate the complexity of what we do when we relate to an artwork. Far from being a “purely optical” and unmediated reflex, the art event is an infinitely complex semiotic Bead Game involving many different levels and directions of meaning and infinite regresses of relations among them. Let’s forget for a moment the Eye of the Soul and think of the marvelous mammalian brain which instantly reads out these many different codes, keeps them separate while balancing and relating them, and produces a sense of the work in which all these factors are represented, however transformed through interplay with the particular receiving sensibility. Far from a simplistic philistinism, content is a complex and demanding event without which no artwork could transpire. It demands our attention since without awareness of these distinctions and levels we do not really know what has happened already in art, and what is happening now for the first time.

“Prologues to What Is Possible,” or, "What We See Is What We Think”

An overwhelmingly important aspect of content is its pivotal role in defining genres and oeuvres. By fore-grounding an element of content usually taken for granted and invisible a whole new artistic mode or direction can be discovered. Content arising from scale, for example, has been foregrounded in various ways by such 20th-century avant-gardists as Claes Oldenburg, whose oversize baseball bat and the like involve scale not only as a formal but also as a contentual element, and Walter de Maria, whose Two Parallel Lines, 1968, in the Nevada desert, isolate scale and foreground it as a leading principle. In both cases the content of scale has to do with human scale, with relativity, with image multiplication, with the dichotomy culture/nature, and so on.

The content of context also long seemed fixed and invisible, as the church, museum, gallery, or, snore recently, the bank building, seemed the natural or given arena in which to see art. Dada foregrounded context as content, aggressively investigating contexts (the Café Voltaire, the public urinal) whose contents were implicit critiques of the museumlike space and the Platonic metaphysic implied by its efforts toward timelessness. Duchamp and more recent artists such as Marcel Broodthaers, Daniel Buren, and Michael Asher have foregrounded context as a primary signifier in their work.

Duration is another category that in our culture has been regarded as fixed in one form (ars longa), any deviation from which once seemed actually unrecognizable as art. More recently, ephemeral works of various kinds have foregrounded the aspect of duration. Richard Long’s documented walks through countrysides, for example, pointed to the contents of context and duration—as Earthworks foregrounded context and scale. The Dada performance in which Francis Picabia drew on the blackboard while André Breton erased behind him involved a combination of duration-content with iconoclasm (a relation to art history).

What must be stressed is that these aspects of content were always there, but they were not elements that artists consciously worked with. An art establishment rigidly fixed in the mood of Platonic transcendentalist bourgeois capitalism promoted the myth that these elements were fixed or given; the contents they expressed were thus made to seem natural and hence invisible—unacknowledged parts of the “visual ideology” of the cultural mode. The point is that these categories of content were exercising their effect without anyone realizing it; we received their messages without realizing that they were sending them. One of the great achievements of anti-formalist periods of 20th-century Western art is precisely their deliberate fore-grounding of categories of content that had been working on us unnoticed for so long.

The content that arose from contradiction among levels of content has occasionally moved into the foreground. Goya stayed afloat through a straight-faced use of it. Pop art foregrounded it—the iconic mode mocked by mundaneness of subject matter, grandiosity of scale mocked by triviality of subject matter, and so on. In general, Pop art employed the clean, hard-edged representation that implies a world of ontological integrity composed of entities with fixed and knowable identities; yet the allusive or quotational content, with its references to a despised popular culture and to information as random, neutral, or meaningless, decried this declaration of ontological integrity as a sham or con job. (To the extent that the efficacy of Pop art was primarily critical rather than esthetic it was rightly called Neo-Dada.)

The history of art needs to be rewritten with attention to the different modes of content that have been fore-grounded in different traditions and periods. The subject must be vastly oversimplified here to give the merest glimpse of how such a project might proceed. The recent history of content, for example—of, say, the last century or so—may be described (on one level) as expressing a constantly intensified attention to the question of representation. A belief in representation—though variously formulated—was pretty well in effect through much of the 19th century. It lost credibility not only through the advent of photography, which reduced to absurdity the conventional admiration for the skill of it all, but also through ethnological contact with societies whose conventions of representation were very different from ours, and equally supposed to be objective. Australian aborigines, according to anthropologists who have worked with Australian primal peoples, could not see a resemblance between an object and a photograph of it no matter how much persuasion and guidance they were given.

So-called abstract art challenged the (discredited) inherited canons of representation and explored new ones which, since they differed from the established type of representation, were not recognized as representation at all. I mean of course the modeling of reality along broad conceptual and emotional lines that replaced the representation of material objects and which was called, somewhat inaccurately, nonrepresentational art. This metaphysical representationalism culminated in the tradition of the Sublime, which was precariously based on two types of content: the content of attempting to eliminate content, and the content provided by verbal supplements. The problem lay precisely in its dependence on those verbal supplements. Kant asserted that the three human faculties (esthetic, cognitive, and practical) were independent of one another; this meant that no verbal (i.e., cognitive) formulation could ever approach the esthetic experience. Largely under the influence of this doctrine, formalist critics from Benedetto Croce to Clement Greenberg denied the appropriateness of any acknowledgement of content whatever. Many of the artists whom these critics represented—and on whose work they based their arguments, supposedly—did not agree with this at all. In written supplements in the forms of titles, interviews, essays, and catalogue statements, artists from Kandinsky and Mondrian to Rothko and Newman rejected the pure Form analysis of their work and specified the contents they intended it to carry—contents generally in or near the category of the Sublime. This is why formalist critics in their heyday insisted that one should never listen to artists. This urgent disagreement between artists and critics was confusing. Greenberg, Michael Fried, and others were such powerful advocates of their way of seeing that they defined a communal habit for all of us. Discovering their correctness in our own habit-system—once they had showed us how—we felt it as simply given, like nature or the cosmos. When the art public began to realize with unease that our great artists of the’50s were in fact metaphysical contentists, and not esthetic purists like their critics, the work lost a certain credibility. It stood awkwardly revealed as just another mode of representation.

This discovery was followed by a phase of openly ironic representation—Pop art—which collapsed the idea of the Sublime into the Brillo logo. Alongside it, as another reaction, arose an attempt not to represent anything at all, but just to be: Minimalism, which led unaltered rock piles into the art catalogues. Conceptualism in turn eschewed all visual modes except as tools of critical insight (rather than esthetic delight): representation and the various ironic relations to it became tools in a critical vocabulary.

Most recently—in the last five years or so—the recognizable 20th-century modes of representation have returned to the center of the artistic vocabulary—but with attitudinal inversions that render them less straightforward than the first time we saw them. Additional contents of quoting, irony, and contradiction between semiotic levels have been added to the content of representation. Representation in these works is not based on the naive assumption that it resembles nature. What are being represented are modes of representation themselves. Through quoting, the process of representation is simultaneously acted out and criticized: its cultural-conventional roots are laid bare at the same moment that they exercise their effects upon us. There is a great cultural dexterity to this—to seeing one’s delusion while one is still deluded by it.

“ . . . To say of one mask it is like,
To say of another it is like

To know that the balance does not quite rest,
That the mask is strange, however like.”

The recent wave of quoting has to be distinguished from various earlier visual activities that superficially look like it, including cultural diffusion, artistic influence, and homage. It is very different from the quoting of alien’ cultures as part of a process of learning. The Egyptians quoted the Sumerians; the Greeks the Egyptians; the Romans the Greeks; the Renaissance Italians, the Romans. This was the trail of civilization as it diffused its elements from culture to culture. Quoting in that sense is receiving, acquiring, learning. What we are presently dealing with is a very different semiotic transaction, a quoting of things already acquired or learned by every member of the intended audience, a passing around, in new combinations, of things we already have. This activity is rooted, in our century, in Duchamp’s use of the quotation of iconic images as a critical instrument, in Picabia’s quoting of styles-as-things, and in other Dada-connected strategies (including Kurt Schwitters’ collages). Pop art, at the end of the Abstract-Expressionist last gasp of Soul, locked it in place.

To a degree the purpose of Dada—and of Pop as neo-Dada—was to reveal the semiotic impersonality of the art process and to ridicule the idea of Soul and its timeless products. To this end Dada vulgarized the iconic and Pop iconized the vulgar. More recently the quoting activity has been enormously accelerated. Artists have quoted, with or without overt displays of irony, a huge range of art-historical materials, both images and styles being used as found objects: references to the lonic frieze, the Roman sarcophagus, Baroque mythological allegories, and Paleolithic wall engravings coexist with exact rerenderings of Pollock, de Kooning, Tanguy, Léger, less exact rerenderings of broad stylistic types, from neo-Expressionism to neo-Hard-Edge-Abstraction, and a great deal more that is by now familiar. The process works in various ways. An entire work can be a rigorously exact quote of an earlier work (that is to say, a copy of it), a new work may incorporate one or more quoted elements into an original format, styles and genres of the past may be loosely quoted or referred to, a familiar icon may be quoted with some significant change such as a difference in scale or context, an object from the nonart world may be quoted in an art context, and so on.

What is involved here is more than the Duchampian critique of art history and of the esthetic theory of art, more than the Picabian investigations. It is in addition a very special kind of fin de siécle inventorying: an inventory not merely of classical styles and images but more particularly of the critical insights of this century—of the critique of esthetics, of representation, of art-historical historicism, indeed of all the value projections that the culture as a whole has cast upon neutral information.

This activity has variously been called Alexandrianism and post-Modernism; as the latter term suggests, its meaning is inseparable from that of Modernism. John Dewey stressed the aspect of Modernism that is important here: the conviction that with reason, pragmatism, and good will human communities can identify and solve their problems, ever more perfectly implementing the ideal of the greatest good for the greatest number. History, in this view, is regarded as a process of problem-solving, driven by an inner imperative toward progress. This ideology arose under heavy Greek influence in the 18th century and, in the 19th, gained momentum from the irrational extension of Darwinism to cultural as well as biological affairs. Its reflection in art criticism was the historicist view that at every moment there is an art-historical imperative, an urgent need to “solve” a certain set of esthetic problems which have been left behind by the last solution to the last problem. This “tradition of the new” has only occurred in democracies; the opposite stance—resistance to change, an attempt to make change appear taboo or unnatural—has characterized cultures with hereditary rulers or self-perpetuating ruling cliques. The most successful instance is ancient Egypt, where, for example, the canons of representation through drawing went unchanged for about two thousand years without solving elementary problems of foreshortening. It is no accident that the form of government did not change in that time either, or that the idea of the Soul—the idea that human nature is, in essence, unchanging—was first (it seems) clearly formulated here. The ideal order of things was affirmed by all this (and an aspect of that order, of course, was class structure).

It is important that we realize that our Modernism is not unique. In an earlier instance, in the ancient Greek democracies from about 550 B.C. till about 350 B.C., the tradition of the new was fully in effect in literature, music, and the fine arts, as well as in social and political experimentation. The achievements of Pheidias and Polykleitos posed the problems for Lysippos and Praxiteles, and so on. Euripides and other poets transformed the inherited metrical system into complex free verse, as in late-19th-century poetry in Europe and America. Timotheus, Euripides’ friend, and other composers called the New Musicians leveled distinctions between model harmonies with an increasing chromaticism which parallels the breakdown of the key in early Modern music. In theater, the proscenium arch was breached as radically by Aristophanes (who once had the actors throw water and wheat chaff on the audience in the middle of a play) as by Vsevolod Meyerhold. Socialism, meanwhile, grew until, in Pericles’ Athens, the state was the leading employer.

Then, as now, Modernism arose in the context of a positivistic democracy carried away by emerging international hegemony to an almost giddy sense of its ability to solve social and cultural problems. Thus sure of the future, a culture gives away its past. Traditions that developed over centuries or millennia are discarded almost casually on the historicist assumption that something better will inevitably replace them. The intellectual origin of this activity was in the works of the Sophists, who are the first humans on record as stating publicly that convention is not a binding law but a material for us to shape as we want it. For our period, Hume and Voltaire and the other thinkers of the Age of Reason served that function.

The innocent confidence that the Modernist imperative requires ended, in the Greek case, with the catastrophic loss first of hegemony, then of self-rule. In the age that followed, called the Alexandrian, the tradition of the new was reversed. The idea of solving (and hence posing) one more formalist problem was no longer inspirational. The inner imperative of Greek art and culture turned toward its past. While it was not possible to regain in all innocence what had been sacrificed to the Modernist impulse, it was possible, through quoting, to enter into a new relationship with it. Theocritus wrote in the dialect of Sappho—which he had never heard; his readers were expected to recognize the allusion as a foundational content in his work. In time new literary genres arose that featured quoting, like the “Scholars’ Conversation,” in which learned people play an intricate game of responding quotations and allusions, and the cento, a poem that was made up entirely of lines quoted from other poems. A huge industry arose in copies of great classical statues.

A period in which traditions are destroyed is apt to be followed by a period of nostalgic longing for them and attempts to reconstruct them. The guilt of having destroyed them is allayed by incorporating them into the very context of their destruction. It seems clear that we are involved in an experience that parallels to some extent that of the Greeks. Similar value judgments have been rendered in both cases. The Alexandrian age is often regarded as one of exhaustion, as a time when Greek culture replayed the elegant achievements of its past, arraying them as a last review of antique riches before giving up the ghost. Post-Modernism, too, has been decried as a failure of nerve, a submission of free will, an abortive termination of a project that was not yet complete. But what could it mean for a project based on institutionalizing change to be “complete”? The idea that cultural history is inherently dominated by an arc of progress is a form of disguised millennialist historicism which is, really, a superstition. The great superstition of the post-Sophistic Greek culture was its faith in the efficacy of reason as an engineer of social change; in our time this superstitious faith has been redoubled by the religious overtones with which Darwinism has entered into ideas of social and spiritual advancement. The puritanical urgency of the Modernist imperative was based on hidden residues of mythic structures which still carried with them the intensity of divine promise. Clearly, progress has been expected to produce, in time, a human condition so improved as to be virtually Edenic: a state so good that the idea of further progress becomes inconceivable. One thinks of those prophetic cults that have expected the Millennium (or the Revolution, or the Aquarian Age) to arrive within a few days, years, or decades. In this sense Modernism was yet another disguised form of the Christian prophecy of the End of History (which is striving), and the attainment (as reward for that striving) of the ahistorical paradise again.

If we are to derive a beneficial lesson from our Alexandrian time, it will be in part by paying attention to what it reveals about the delusions of our Modernism, and about our own ability, or eagerness, to be so deluded. To do so, one must relate to quotations as a type of content. The flaw in Modernism was precisely its conviction that it was not quoting and varying, but creating. Seen in this larger context, Alexandrian or post-Modern quoting is simply a process of bringing out into the open what all modes of expression do all the time anyway, but without usually bothering to acknowledge (or even realize) it. Quoting is an inevitable component in all acts of communication; it is what makes communication possible. Communication operates on a base of habits; that is, codes shared between the sender and receiver of the message. Every message thus is a quotation or allusion to the whole mass of past messages in the same code, which have established the habits of recognition. To speak without quoting would be gibberish—or rather, it would not be speech at all, but sound, like wind or waves. Communication not based on quoting is a mythic ideal, like the innocent eye; both are fragments of the myth of Eden, of an ahistorical condition in which, since there is no historical sequence, everything happens, as Breton said of the unconscious, “always for the first time.” One thinks of the Medieval experiment in which two children were raised without ever hearing language, to see what language they would naturally speak—which was assumed to be the language of Eden. Of course they spoke none, having been given no examples of one to quote. In the beginning was the Word—and since then there’s been the quote.

In most acts of communication, the quoting level is in the background; it functions almost invisibly, the better to foreground the specific present message. But when Theocritus quoted Sappho’s dialect and meters, when Duchamp quoted the Mona Lisa, when a contemporary painter quotes Alexander Rodchenko or Francis Picabia, Jackson Pollock or Yves Tanguy or Andy Warhol, with full certainty that the quotation will be recognized, the relationship is directly reversed because the fact of quoting is placed in the foreground.

It is no surprise that such activity should be common in cultures that, like ours or that of Alexandrian Greece, have opened their receivers to the sign-systems of foreign cultures; such an experience either teaches one the relativity of one’s own values and codes or produces a xenophobic reaction designed to avoid that realization. Both modern Europe and Alexandrian Greece focused special attention on the semiotic impersonality of cultural expression. The Greek rulers of Egypt, for example, in a hyper-sophisticated act of political manipulation, created for the native proletariat a new religion constructed cold-bloodedly out of extant symbolic codes. In our time, Roland Barthes expressed the impersonality of semiotic transactions as “the death of the Author”: it is not an individual who speaks, he said, but Language that speaks through the individual. In the same sense, it is not the individual who makes images, but the vast image bank of world culture that images itself forth through the individual. That image bank (like language) can be viewed as a vast transpersonal mind aimlessly and relentlessly processing us through its synapses. To that extent, art based on quoting postulates the artist as a channel as much as a source, and negates or diminishes the idea of Romantic creativity and the deeper idea on which it is founded, that of the Soul. If we feel an ethical resistance to quoting it may be because we hold too dear the idea of Soul, because we cherish an essentialist prejudice about what art should be. At such a moment one thinks of Wittgenstein’s advice to look and see what it is.

Despite its apparent disparagement of the idea of an integral self, quoting is an art mode in which the artist’s intentions are brought into unusual prominence. Allusion, for example, always involves awareness of the artist’s intention to allude, rather than to plagiarize. Irony, also, which must be an ingredient in most works of this type, involves a judgment about the artist’s intentions. The old feeling of the leap of the artist’s insight is not gone, but considerably altered in range and relevance: that leap is now a meta-leap, made up of the ruins of past leaps. Quotational painting is addressed as much to the mind as to the eye. The idea that intelligence should be in an antagonistic relationship to the senses is an abomination, like all Manichaean-type dualisms. The dualisms of form and content, spirit and matter, mind and body, are all really the same dualism, one which arose in part as an archaic propaganda system to support an unchanging form of the state. This recent painting as a second generation form of conceptual art cannot be regarded as painting pure and simple in the old sense. If this is understood, Duchamp’s phrase “stupid as a painter” will not apply; on the other hand, if the work lacks the kind of intelligence appropriate to it, it will be student work, or primitive work, or spurious. Further, since wit functions by a substitution of expectations, by a simultaneous invoking and denying of conditioned responses, it is potentially a means of insight into conditioning. The semiotic sensing involved produces a means of locating or defining the present, that is, oneself. When an artist quotes a familiar icon from the past in a clearly contemporary work, we semiotically sense the difference between the Then and the Now of the work and at the same time the relationship between them. That relation locates our present stance with a sometimes uncanny precision which yields a subtle strangeness and an actual pleasure in the mind’s tasting and appreciating of it. We sense the refoldings and redefinings of the vast image bank of all cultures and feel ourselves within it as both its creatures and its creators. To this degree it is our own esthetic habits that are held up as objects of contemplation in these ideograms of the history of taste.

A key function of this contemplative/critical regurgitation of images is to replay or reconfront the problem of abstraction, or, to call it by the other side of the coin, the problem of representation. Oddly, though our artists explored the interfaces and relations between these modes for nearly a century, neither they nor we were able to see clearly what we had to see: that representation is not representation and abstraction is not abstraction. Quotational art places the historical repertoire of art styles into the realm of nature, not in the sense that they are treated as laws of nature, but that they become simply more objects occurring on the screen of consciousness. The various styles that once were thought of as either representational or abstract may now be seen as neutral data which, according to convention, may be viewed as either this or that. The very distinction between representation and abstraction was an artificial convention: all image codes are neutral in this respect, until we project onto them one value or the other. What is being demonstrated is something about convention, and something about habit.

One of the great discoveries of our time, as of the Sophistic age in ancient Greece, has been the discovery of the neutrality of information. At its most effective, quotational work directs us toward this realization and brings us face to face with our own internal resistance to it. It focuses our attention less on the images themselves than on our odd feelings about them, which have been made strange—and thus made visible—by achronological structuring. Our habit-expectations about temporal succession (and thus about history) are denied by the atemporal image-cluster. To the extent to which that atemporality, or ahistoricism, seems strange or unacceptable, to that extent we are still controlled by the old habit-expectations. Those expectations were based on a false conviction of our own innocence; our ability to see innocently, to see “always for the first time,” is affronted by the quoting process, as is the ultimately myth-based conviction of a historical inevitability. The confrontation with one’s own sense of the strangeness of it offers a glimpse of freedom, as we see that our expectations, our history, our selves, are all artifacts thrown off by infinite regresses of quotations, and that finally, freed from the myths of innocence and inevitability, we may do with them whatever we want.

If ever the search for a tranquil belief should end,
The future might stop emerging out of the past,
Out of what is full of us; yet the search
And the future emerging out of us seem to be one. . . .

. . . The way through the world
Is more difficult to find than the way beyond it.

Thomas McEvilley is a contributing editor of Artforum and a professor at the Institute of the Arts Rice university, Houston.



1. The title of this article and the subtitles and stanzas quoted in are taken from the poems of Wallace Stevens.