New York

Bernar Venet

The New York Cultural Center

The complete nonworks of a French nonartist can be seen in a show called the Five Years of Bernar Venet at the New York Cultural Center. Venet practices—or practiced—a dilettantish monkeying with “information theory,” starting in 1966 and ending, as previously announced, at the age of 30 in 1971. The whole career was an attempt to be swingingly cybernetic, but now that we can look back we see that it was hardly serendipitous.

It is amusing that radical revisionists so often come up with ideas that are pseudo-intellectual recapitulations of aspects and fringe benefits of established university life. In Bernar Venet’s case this involves a befuddled wonder at the enormous profusion of recorded information, and a recognition that through this tremendous bulk of factual material there runs yet another axis to consider: time (for him, obsolescence). But both realizations are immediately available, and familiar, to any member of a university community. Even Irwin Edman had such an experience when as an undergraduate he first browsed in the stacks of the Columbia library, and no doubt we have all had one at some time or another. Is Venet’s experience any more vivid or engaging than Edman’s or our own? No. Even as far as his marveling at the continual compounding of fresh upon stale information in the newer fields of scientific inquiry is concerned, Venet provides us with nothing that we do not get by visiting the current periodicals section of the science library once a year. Where does his supposed achievement lie? Not in invoking a sense of time, a coordinate which today is very widely noticed on all levels of literacy and sophistication. Not in stunning us into dumbfoundedness since for the nonadept that experience is all too often close at hand. Not in any revelation of the typographical and compositional actuality of verbal and graphic information, since the facts are presented as hopelessly incomprehensible wallpaper, even when they are superficial, and there is here nothing as vivid and direct as, for instance, Brian O’Doherty’s cardiogram of Duchamp.

Venet keeps telling us, as if it were necessary to insist, that he is not an artist. But he and Donald Karshan (author of the catalogue essay, “The Five Years of Bernar Venet,” in which Vesalius’ name is ignorantly misspelled) keep slipping into esthetic postures. Actually, we know very confidently that this is not art, so there isn’t even any irony value. Venet’s own “Notes” are downright foolish. “In order to avoid style, none should be adopted” may well be the dumbest statement on style in print.

Bernar Venet’s insistence on the didactic function of his work is a larger issue on which he is even more seriously mistaken. In the first place, this turns out to be, despite its lust for objectivity, a problem of personal TASTE: Venet is simply a Jansenistic French intellectual who wants to docere and is afraid to delectare (which is why he shrinks from charm of any kind). Secondly, it is not possible to learn anything from this material, so it cannot be didactic. For a given observer everything is either too deep or fragmentary to supply a mode of entrance, or else it is too trivial to be of use e.g., the definitions of equal and opposed vectors, the “image” of a molecule, the “Measure of the Diameter” of a rectangle [which has undesired artistic relations with Mel Bochner], the weather forecasts, the stock market material). There is an absurd redundancy in the claim that material which can only have meaning if it is already understood, or which if it is understood is useless, can be didactic.

There is only one source of esthetic interest in the kind of material that concerns Venet, and with that he has not succeeded in coming to terms. (Should we give him another five years?) I have in mind the sense of realized intellectual sublimity which some scientific records do possess. This is almost never apparent to scientists, even when their emotions are most esthetically engaged in quest of simplicity, precision, and clarity of expression. And it is apparent to Bernar Venet only as a vague hunch. (Coomaraswamy’s brief review of A Mathematician’s Apology, Art Bulletin, 1941, is a classic statement on the true esthetic content of science, to which none of Venet’s work measures up.)

Let me give an example of this dilemma. A friend of mine spent most of a year on a research ship plotting the contours of the Pacific Ocean floor, and at least another year working on the assembly and interpretation of the data. Finally the scientists arrived at the stage where everything could be fitted together and the ocean depths at regular intervals were plotted in numerals on a large sheet of white paper. I had a look at this thing, much more a pattern of numbers than what you would call a map, and yet the only accurate representation in the world at the time of the floor of the Pacific. My admiration was partly for the incredible complexity and scale of the task that had been completed, partly for the esthetic pleasure supplied by this ultimate resolution, and partly for the precious momentary uniqueness of this piece of paper. When I expressed my enthusiasm my oceanographer pal suggested that the head of the project might supply me with a copy of this “map.” He made the request, but was as disappointed as I: what I received was an autographed copy of the “artist’s version” prepared for the National Geographic!

I relate this because it goes to the center of the issue of conceptual relations between art and science. The problem is mainly one of consciousness, and despite the fact that art looks “easier,” it is the scientists who are more at fault. Most scientists are simply not aware of the esthetic aspect of their work and if you tell them that there is such a thing they will misunderstand. Except on the lowest levels they presumably all catch some glimpses of the esthetic aspect, since it is just those rare moments of order-revelation or pattern-simplification that supply what pleasure there is to be had in scientific activity. They all know this, even to the point of cant, but they do not realize that to some degree this experience is transferable—as if they lapsed into mysticism just where their clarity of thought would be most helpful to us. In Bernar Venet’s case we have a situation even more hopelessly complicated: he is not a scientist and for some reason wants not to be an artist. He knows too little about science to be any help in the poetic transfer of scientific experience; and he doesn’t like the idea of taking pleasure from science—or art—anyway.

Venet’s most egotistically French presuppositions are that his phonily assumed anonymity earns him a “name” (why not be consistent and exhibit the entire oeuvre anonymously?) and that what he has done is somehow a noble feat. (Like a true Jansenist he suspects that by purging all grounds of pleasure he achieves and deserves life everlasting.) In actual fact he has spent five years accomplishing very little. He did organize some situations in which members of the art public were injected into science audiences, but nothing much seems to have come of that. So his catalogue raisonné is an embarrassing folly. I do not like the uncharity of attacking an artist as a person, but in this case there is nothing else to zero in on: this vapid, empty exhibition and catalogue record the utter waste of five years on the part of a nobody. Devoid in the end as much of sacred “information” as it is of enjoyment, this span of a man’s life, catalogued and exhibited, boils down to just another contemporary French attempt to jump on a bandwagon that has already departed.

Joseph Masheck