Today I ventured out for the first time to the Autonomous University of Barcelona (La Autónoma) to lecture for the Departament de Filologia Anglesa (Department of English Studies). Thanks go to Prof. Sara Martín Alegre for the invitation! So many years after jumping the fence from the literary field into the pasture of art, it was a pleasure to talk to literature folks about the image-word problem, its relation to disciplinary balkanization, and how art practices can intervene into what is at stake.
Ut Pictura Poesis
Initially I set out to put the topic in the context of two well-known traditions that prescribe how images and words should behave together. The first, ut pictura poesis, was a familiar framework for me from having studied William Blake with a bit of care years ago for my doctoral dissertation. It was WJT Mitchell’s book on Blake that pointed to this tradition while distinguishing Blake’s image-word dialectics within it. Ut pictura poesis, which by simple translation means “as in a painting, so also in a poem,” names a long-standing dogma dating back at least to Horace that seeks to establish literature and visual art on equal footing as “sister arts.” In his Ars Poetica, Horace aimed to elevate the artistic status of poetry to what painting enjoyed in his day. Plutarch attributed the original sentiment to the ancient Greek lyric poet Simonides of Keos who described painting as mute poetry and poetry as speaking picture. Centuries later, in his Laocoon: An Essay upon the Limits of Poetry and Painting (1766), the German philosopher Lessing extended the disciplinary parallelism, for better or worse, by identifying the powers of image and word with the dimensions of space and time, respectively, and further with the feminine and the masculine. One can easily guess the ideological upshot of such a principle of “separate but equal” mediums: the superiority of text over image.
Second, the tradition of ekphrasis negotiates the relationship of picture and word specifically by stressing the lavish power of language to describe and reinvent the image. Examples range from the Imagines of Philostratus of Lemnos (c. 190 – c. 230 AD) to Walter Pater’s description (1893) of Da Vinci’s La Gioconda (Mona Lisa) and Walter Benjamin’s meditation (1920) on Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus in “Theses on the Philosophy of History.”
From Blake to Broodthaers and Beyond
Partly following Mitchell, I discussed William Blake as a curious synthesis of these apparently opposite traditions. In Blake, the picture depicts the text but it also reflects the status of the text as text. For example, in The Book of Urizen, the central margin of the poetic text gets aligned with the spine of the depicted book, which is in turn aligned with the division of the Mosaic tablets. In the end, the series of alignments points back to the book in your hands. The recursion in Urizen goes further with the iterative essence of his book itself, for which Blake produced multiple variant versions. By the same token, while the words on the page express the poetic narrative, at certain points the text’s script drifts off into visual ornaments that challenge a strict separation of word and picture.
In my talk, I emphasized that the word-image relationship presents a productive impasse (based on an internal structural dynamic of surplus and lack) that leads from Blake’s Urizen to Rene Magritte’s pipes and Key of Dreams and eventually to Robert Rauschenberg’s Portrait of Iris Clert, Jenny Holzer’s Projections, and Marcel Broodthaers’ The Clean Room. From this point, I was able to demonstrate a continuous movement from my doctoral project, which started from the endeavor to demonstrate the (structural) impossibility of language, to my current work, Lost Grids.
Discussion of Art Criticism
Finally, I was asked to talk about my teaching, particularly the writing of art criticism, and the issue of professionalizing student writers. It’s a fair and useful question, even if the focus of my art criticism course is not the professionalization of writers per se. I laid down a few features of my curriculum and discussed the booklet of student writings (pdf below) we produced last Spring before I left on sabbatical.
A Few Features of My Art Criticism Course:
• Intensive study of art theory + criticism
The students begin the course by studying, reporting on, and discussing in a seminar forum a sampling of key twentieth-century voices in the discipline. These voices range from Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg, Michael Fried, and Leo Steinberg to Joseph Kosuth, Rosalind Krauss, Lucy Lippard, Douglas Crimp, among others. During the second half of the course, the students turn to selected essays and interviews currently published in major journals on contemporary art: Artforum, Art Monthly, Bidoun, Bomb, e-flux, Frieze, Modern Painters, Mousse, and SFAQ, to name a few. To guide the study of both sets of readings, small teams of three students are assembled to distill each text’s basic argument and to stage and facilitate a class discussion with relevant background information and interpretive questions.
• Intertextuality + discussion
Beyond an engagement with the main argument of each text, the classroom discussions give special attention to the intertextual nature of these writings and to the cross-fertilizing yet often contentious dialogue between art and art criticism implied by each text. At this level, the ongoing classroom conversation that takes place over the fourteen weeks of the semester aims to construct a flexible network of themes, ideas, vocabularies, and frameworks that can distinguish how each individual piece of art criticism speaks within a shifting cultural exchange on art and its contemporary relevance.
• Weekly group site visits
To complement their traditional academic study of art criticism, the students venture out in study groups every week to Bay Area art galleries, museums, and other cultural centers to research the organizational mission, history, and design of these exhibit venues while highlighting one exhibit or artist within the venue’s current programming. The study groups then meet to prepare a presentation of their field work, which they deliver in a subsequent class session with the aim of prompting discussion and reflection back on the ongoing conversation about course readings.
• Writing craft
Throughout the semester, the students focus attention on the craft of writing art criticism guided by the process of group critique and by their reading of Gilda Williams’ text, How to Write About Contemporary Art. To materialize their process, students submit weekly entries from a journal notebook they keep throughout the term, in which they enter art-critical drafts, notes and reflections on class discussions and readings, observations on art and art venues, and experiments with ideas, sketches, and writing. For the term each student submits two finished works of art criticism that are workshopped extensively through individual and group peer critiques. These works are submitted for consideration to be published in the annual art[crit student journal. The best works are submitted for campus-wide writing competition.
Following each term interested students seek internships with arts organizations, working in the curatorial and publications departments. Students are encouraged to start blogs on contemporary art and to develop relationships with local galleries and museums.
The Space of Education
It was my first time to the Autonomous University (UAB). The beautiful campus, situated outside Barcelona city proper, reminded me of the campus building projects that took place in the US in response to the student unrest of the 1950s and ‘60s. These projects aimed to provide a “safe space” for intellectual inquiry – safe, that is, from any immediate contact and cross-pollinating confluences with urban impulses. UAB is known as a politically active campus (see entrance photo above), while the distance from Barcelona’s city center is unmistakable.
Following my talk, I tried in vain to locate Ed Powell’s study of the University at Buffalo’s architectural project in which the university, which had ample space to expand near its main campus, moved the entire humanities division twenty or so miles out into the countryside (Amherst NY) and established a new campus away from the main campus that houses the scientific disciplines. Friends used to highlight the neutralizing effect of isolating the discourses of scientific and humanistic inquiry in the midst of the expanding military industrial complex. I also recalled two of the construction projects in Oakland’s Peralta Community College system (Merritt and Laney in particular), where campuses were built to withstand or subvert riots. A few Barcelona friends have suggested that the history of the Autonomous universities in Spain resonates with the American equivalents.
Of course such projects recall Michel Foucault’s description of disciplinary architectures. If Deleuze’s reassessment in his 1992 “Postscript” is valid – that contemporary society represents a shift from “disciplinary” to “control” surveillance, from the regulation of enclosure to a regulation of openness, from a localized to a distributed and networked circulation, even from an economy of production to an experience and sharing economy – how do these “architectures” function? As outmoded projects that languish in contemporary irrelevance? Or as memorials and ruins whose very irrelevance physically archives while simultaneously inspiring the real possibility of political change?