January 25, 2008

The aesthetics of subtlety

Filed under: Narrative,Theory,Visual Poetry — Graham Coulter-Smith @ 12:40 pm

Louise Bourgeois, Do you love me? Do you love me?, date unknownI came upon this image in a student’s essay, no year was given but it is a sculpture by Louise Bourgeois, the title is also uncertain, perhaps it is “Do you love me? Do you love me?” because that is carved on the sculpture’s base. The significance of the work, for me, lies in a quotation related to the work which the student found and which, I believe, raises an interesting issue.

The quotation is from the Telegraph’s art critic Richard Dorment who notes that when Bourgeois was eleven:

her tyrannical father shattered … [her] happiness when he brought his mistress to live in … [her childhood] house, under the pretext of hiring her as Louise’s English governess. Once you know about Daddy’s betrayal, the symbolism is only too obvious… for me Bourgeois’ work often fails because she gives us too much information… obviously (Bourgeois is always obvious) the subject is the crushing of the child by the intensity of parental love. I want to say “I get it! We don’t need the inscription”. (Dorment 2007)

The point Dorment is making is very significant because it relates to key issues informing the relationship of fine art to visual communication. Fundamentally, contemporary fine artists are generally unconcerned with visual communication. What we are dealing with in the sphere of fine art is less visual communication—which is the preserve of graphic design, for example—than visual poetry. And, from a semiotic point of view, when we are dealing with poetry we are dealing with what Roman Jakobson referred to as “the poetic function” (Ncsu) which can be explained simply as a deconstruction of conventional ways of using visual language in favour of a foregrounding of metaphor. By metaphor we do not mean “dead metaphor“, metaphor that has become so conventional that it is treated as if it were natural. What we mean can be better referred to as “live metaphor”, new metaphor or “good metaphor”: metaphor that is not too obvious.

One of the best definitions of metaphor I have encountered was coined by the Surrealist poet Pierre Reverdy and cited in Andre Breton’s 1924 Manifesto of Surrealism in the following form:

The image is a pure creation of the mind.

It cannot be born from a comparison but from a juxtaposition of two more or less distant realities.

The more the relationship between the two juxtaposed realities is distant and true, the stronger the image will be — the greater its emotional power and poetic reality (in Breton 1924)

The impact of romantic aesthetics on Surrealism is evident in the first line of the quotation, but even today we have to admit that “good metaphor” springs out of the capacity for unconscious cognition to make quantum leaps and interconnections across the universe of symbols that inhabits our invisible memory. The last line of the Reverdy quotation is also of particular interest because it allows us to judge how “good” a metaphor might be on the basis of the “distance” between the elements being interconnected.

Louise Bourgeois, Do you love me? Do you love me?, date unknown

Returning to Bourgeois’ sculpture we have to admit that it does not present a leap between signifiers as remarkable as say Meret Oppenheim’s Breakfast in Fur or Man Ray’s The Gift. This sculpture is representational and is clearly about a child being crushed. We can, therefore, sympathise with Dorment’s dismay over the inscription which seems to underscore what is clearly represented with a rather direct, literal, use of language. There is nothing “sophisticated” about this text, nothing we would call “poetic” in the serious sense of that word: it is the articulation of a child rather than that of an urbane adult.

Nevertheless, in the absence of the inscription or any knowledge of the facts which Dorment outlines in his account of this work the viewer would be left puzzled as to its precise meaning. We would only know that it refers to a child being crushed, we would have little notion of what it was being crushed by, apart from a large marble sphere which might represent the world.

One of the very useful features of the inscription is that it makes this work more self-sufficient in terms of communication. One doesn’t really have to know anything about Bourgeois’ family history to gain more of an inkling as to what this work might mean to the artist.

If the inscription was removed in the interest of making the work more subtle then the viewer with absolutely have to know about the artist’s family history to gain an understanding of the sculpture’s significance. When Dorment exclaims “I get it! We don’t need the inscription” he is omitting to point out the fact that he only “gets it” because he has read what one might call the Louise Bourgeois “back story”.

And if one thinks about it for a moment this need to be aware of a back story in order to understand a work of art is quite extraordinary. It would be extremely odd, for example, if in order to understand a novel one had to read another text. Obviously language has an enormous advantage when it comes to communication in comparison with visual artefacts; but one has the distinct impression that a significant number of contemporary artists use this back story loophole, or “poetic licence”, to good effect.

Nathan Coley, Annihilated Confessions, 2007. Exhibited at Turner Prize 07, Tate Liverpool. Nathan Coley, Annihilated Confessions, 2007.

It is possible, for example, to produce a rather mundane visual artefact and bolster it with an elaborate and “profound” story. I am thinking here in particular of some of Nathan Coley’s work exhibited at Tate Liverpool on the occasion of the Turner Prize 07. His photographs of confessional boxes sprayed over with black paint were a particularly good example of an extremely banal visual device being inflated out of all proportion by the artist’s account of its “meaning” which is passed on to the curatorial priesthood and transmitted to the public by copywriters working for the fine art marketing apparatus:

Annihilated Confessions present exquisite framed photographs of confession boxes obliterated by black spray-paint, referencing street graffiti and censorship. By partially glimpsing the photographs beneath the surface we are simultaneously offered and denied access to the image. Like absolution, the works examine how power can be inferred whilst not, in fact, being visible during correspondence. (Tate 2007) [emphasis added]

Such typically inflated art rhetoric leads our discussion to the issue of aesthetic judgement. I would argue that we should measure fine art on the basis of the art object not on the basis of the story that lies in the background. The reason I think this is important is because the canny and verbally dextrous “artist” currently has the licence to convince the expert audience, consisting in the first instance of curators—the gate keepers of the art world—that any old concoction is profound.

And behind this licence lies the powerful principle that the poetic visual object should be subtle. Whereas graphic design and advertising thrust messages down our throats we have learnt to expect that “fine art” will be difficult.

What I am trying to point out here is that there needs to be a sense of balance. The fundamental focus of aesthetic judgement should not be the back story but the object that the artist has made. And on that basis I would suggest that three out of the four pieces that Nathan Coley exhibited in the 2007 Turner Prize exhibition were mediocre.

And as for Louise Bourgeois’ sculpture, I disagree with Dorment, on the basis that the inscription on that sculpture enables that piece to function in and of itself. But even then the piece is quite weak in terms of its metaphoric power; not just because it is “obvious” but also because it is quite a crude representational motif.

Breton, Andre. 1924. Manifesto of Surrealism. Online version accessed January 2008:
Dorment, Richard. 2007. “Louise Bourgeois: The shape of a child’s torment”,, online version of the British broadsheet newspaper accessed January 2008:
Tate. 2007. Turner Prize 07, “The Shortlisted Artists”, online resource accessed January 2008:

1 Comment »

  1. I find it interesting that you’ve dismissed this piece because you think the metaphor is weak. Maybe it’s your own conclusion that is weak. What’s obvious isn’t always the answer. Bourgeois’ work over the span of her life has been anything but obvious. The emotional and intellectual rigor with which she approached her subjects is astounding. There’s great psychological challenges and mystery in most of her work.

    When I encountered this piece at the Guggenheim I found it to be an earnest representation of the one, true eternal plea that springs from our essence: do please love me. Even after all our shouldered burdens, pain, disguises, mistakes, and deceptions collapse to crush us or obscure us (and others) from our true being, our essence (which is wholly innocent) still asks to be loved. To me, this isn’t a depiction of victimization, rather a study in redemption and truth. The crushing weight of the sphere represents what we do to ourselves. The infant limb is still supple and healthy and fully alive — and, for me, signifies true being, which can be affirmed and revived only through the offer and acceptance of love. “Do you love me?” may not be an accusation, but a sincere plea.

    Comment by Jennifer — July 18, 2008 @ 12:54 am

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