PRINT October 1990



ART CRITICISM, AS AN ATTEMPT to translate from images into the words of a language, has to do with the building of bridges. In ancient Rome, bridge builders were called pontifices, and the head builder—pontifex maximus—still lives in that city. Which is to soy that art critics and the pope are in the same business.

Bridge building in general is an address of the problem of transportation over the abyss. The ancients, for example, thought there were two worlds, the mundane one below the moon and the heavenly one above it, and they were separated by a divide. But traffic between the two worlds was essential if life was to have meaning. Bridge builders—pontiffs—were needed. They built a temple on a hill, called the “Capitol,” that bridged the space between the sacred and the lowly political space called the “forum,” and for most of the history of Western civilization this bridge and its descendants carried the traffic between heaven and earth. Then came Sir Isaac Newton, who unified celestial and terrestrial mechanics, leveled heaven to the ground, and did away with the abyss above the moon, making bridges and pontiffs redundant. It took a while before people realized that this was what he had done. Now, however, it has become more or less obvious that though the hill (for instance the Capitol in Washington, D.C.) might claim some godlike authority over the plain (for instance Art“forum” in New York), its priesthood is distinctly to this side of the divine.

Now suppose you want to translate the German expression es gibt into English. There are bridges called “dictionaries” that may lead you to the literal translation “it gives,” but here the pontiffs have misled you. For a reason not immediately obvious, the correct translation is “there is,” and to get at it you have to jump over the abyss that separates German from English. It is this jump that is called a “translation.” This is not to say that dictionaries are useless. There are regions where German and English overlap, and dictionaries are good guides to them. But the expressions es gibt and “there is” seem to stand outside those regions, somewhere near the centers of the two universes of German and English, and these centers are separated by an abyss. It is here that pontiffs are needed.

This is true even with Newton, who seemed to have done away with the pontiffs between Heaven and Earth. Actually what Newton did was establish a gray zone where Heaven and Earth overlap, and he fixed the rules ordering that region. But eventually it became apparent that Newton’s dictionary is sometimes misleading. There is a “big” universe that sits on top of or around the Newtonian one, where Einsteinian rules apply, and where astronauts take their ethereal strolls. And there is a “small” universe that sustains or sits inside the Newtonian one, and here Planckian rules apply, and govern atomic reactions. So Newton abolished one abyss only to end up leaving us with two. How are we to translate the concept “this table,” an object whose behavior remains largely explicable in Newtonian terms, into the macrocosmic and the microcosmic universe? By “curvature of space-time” upward, and by “probability wave” downward? This sounds as awkward as if we translated es gibt by “it gives,” but we have to find accurate translations. Pontiffs are needed.

Let us imagine a pontifical artificial intelligence into which one feeds the words es gibt and gets back the words “there is.” Then one feeds in “this table” and the pope spouts quantum mechanics. Let us go a step farther and feed in a picture postcard: the pope spouts a perfect description of it, in English, and with a smile. The same when one feeds in the Mona Lisa (in reproduction, of course). You might say that such artificially intelligent popes are an impossible nonsense. But we already have electronic intermixes, machines that translate light into sound and vice versa. Feed in an image of a sandwich and you hear the sandwich. Feed in a Schubert sonata and the machine translates it into an image. And we have computers into which you feed an algorithm and get back an image. Soon you’ll be able to get back a hologram as well.

Here art critics may shudder and artists may panic. If an artificially intelligent pope can translate sound into light and number into image, why shouldn’t it translate light into sound, or rather into speech—from image to number to English? Wouldn’t that be a kind of art criticism, and one as exact as quantum mechanics? Such an intelligence would chew any sort of artwork into numbers, then spit it out as text. Wouldn’t that text be a quantified criticism of that art? And then all the critics would be out of work, and all the artists would be subject to relentless examination without any chance of appeal. Soon the artistic scene, the “art forum,” would be translated into a desert.

This is not going to happen, however. Artificially intelligent popes can only build bridges in the gray zones where universes overlap, not where they are separated by abysses. They can only build bridges where bridges are unnecessary. A computer that would translate image to word would resemble the dictionary that would define es gibt as “it gives.” For if you translate es gibt by “there is,” you seem to be cognizant of a metalanguage that embraces German and English equally, for you have equal knowledge of both, across the abyss of their dissimilarity. And the bridge you build is made of that metalanguage. Similarly, if you translate “this table” from the Newtonian universe into the universe of quantum physics, you seem to be in a meta-universe that embraces both these universes, just as our artificially intelligent art critic seems to stand in a meta-universe embracing both images and words. But no such meta-universes exist. What is actually happening is something different: if you translate from German into English, German remains the meta-universe, and English becomes an object that can be lifted into it but can never be coidentical with it. And if you want to render “this table” in quantal equations, you have to lift the language of quantum mechanics into the meta-universe of English. In both these examples the process works both ways. Thus the “meta-” level is a reversible one, and if you were to build papal thrones on it, His Holiness would sit on slippery ground and would not be very comfortable.

This argument is important, for it means that art critics stand on the level of words, and that they try to lift images onto that level. But there is an abyss. Words are incompetent to utter the meanings of images, or of music, or of algorithms, or, for that matter, of the simplest gestures of the body. By the same token, images are incompetent to utter the meaning of a verbal language. There are abysses between the cultural codes, or, if you prefer, the cultural codes are islands of meaning afloat in an ocean of meaningless nothing. An art critic is a pontiff who tries to build a bridge between where he or she stands, namely in words, and the universe of images, and the bridge is made of words, but of words that advance into the meaninglessness of an abyss. This an artificial art critic, or an electronic intermix, will not do. They will only work where universes overlap.

Every code is imperialistic. Those who stand within believe that their code is universal—that “everything” may be said in English, or in music, or in numbers. This, in fad, is the meaning of “faith.” If you stand within the code of words, you believe that the word was in the beginning, that it became flesh, that it is creative (logos spermatikos), that it is the dwelling of Being. And if you stand in the code of numbers, you believe, with Pythagoras and Plato, that it is numbers that are real, and that through them you may achieve wisdom. The same goes for pictures, or, as Plato would say, for “ideas.” But there is this moment of translation when you come up against the limits of the universe you believe in. People like the pope, and like Ludwig Wittgenstein, stand there. And art critics do too, although some of them may not always realize it.

We were told in high school to translate both as faithfully as possible and as freely as necessary. This is a curious recipe for pontification, because it opposes faith to freedom, links freedom to necessity, and says that faith is better than freedom. The recipe goes this way: if I am faithful to German, I shall translate es gibt by “it gives,” but I will find that in this case faith does me no good. I am therefore forced into freedom, into that meaningless abyss between German and English. If I want to translate, I must give up faith and dare freedom. This is the business of bridge building in general, and especially of art criticism. Because it is not the word that is sacred, but the silent abyss that separates words from other codes and from each other. It is this sacred, meaningless, absurd abyss to which pontiffs and art critics attempt to give meaning. Now that artificial intelligences seem to do precisely that, but cannot, pontiffs are needed more than ever.

Vilém Flusser is a teacher of communications at São Paulo University and at the École Nationale de la Photographie, Arles. He contributes this column regularly to Artforum.