Art Essay: Sounds, Images & Words
By RAYMOND J. STEINER
ART TIMES Fall 2014
EVER SINCE I'VE given my talk on "The Art of Art Criticism" — my argument that art criticism is not a "science" but an "art" (and a mighty untrustworthy one at that since, as a communicative language, it is far "younger", less exact, less "readable", than image-making, which is believed to have begun in the Pleistocene Age about 40,000 years B.C., while the 'making of words', to the best of our knowledge, is argued to first begin anywhere from 10,000 to 60,000 years ago) — I've been concluding my 'lecture' by pontificating (biblically), "So remember — in the beginning, then, was not the word, but the image." If the audience was 'loose' enough, sometimes I would add, "So go and sin no more!"
It is obvious that whenever the precise dates either appeared, it is more than well-established that "art" (image-making) is far, far older than speech-making. Stated simplistically, we can all "get" what a picture of an arrow 'says' or means — it is the rare listener who "gets" what a politician 'says' or means, which is why we start our children out with "picture" books rather than "word" books, since they instinctively "get it" (as did our knuckle-dragging ancestors). Erudition, therefore, especially as practiced by art critics who attempt 'translation' of the language of art into speech, have "aft gang agley" into their own ideas, assumptions, interpretations, and fancies. Thus, I argue, art, already a 'language' with its own symbols, rules and 'grammar' is more often than not 'muddied', obfuscated, misrepresented and/or distorted by the symbols, rules and grammar of speechifiers and bloviators. Art — if good — speaks for itself; if it doesn't "speak" on its own terms, then it has failed in its purpose of communicating something to the viewer — if it needs a third-party "explicator" — or even the artist him/herself —to explain what it is "saying" or how the viewer ought to see it or react to it — then it is not worthy of the title of "art", but merely that of "decoration". To turn it around, old friend, artist, and Art Students League of NY instructor Rick Pantell once commented: "If they ask a poet to speak, do they ask him to draw a picture?" If you are still a bit doubtful, sometime when you have a few minutes to kill, try circling nouns and crossing out verbs, adverbs, adjectives, conjunctions, prepositions, etc., in the next art critique you read, and see how much substantive 'stuff' (i.e. nouns) you end up with.
In any event, now I'm not so sure about my categorical pronouncement (albeit 'biblical') of what came first, words or images — after browsing through Marcia Prager's The Path of Blessing: Experiencing the Energy and Abundance of the Divine I'm ready for some emending of my conclusion. I might well be mistaken about the "beginning"… (I am an artwriter/critic after all — I'm expected to talk nonsense!) On pages 25-29, under "Sacred Language and the Dilemma of Translation", Prager, in pointing out the difference between ancient Hebrew (in her words, the "sacred language") and modern-day renditions into common speech (most notably, English), claims that such 'translations' leave a vast gap in meaning. Hebrew, she states, is a "depth language" with a "different structure, nature, and purpose" than that of modern language, which is predominantly a "utilitarian vehicle" with each word conveying a "discrete and limited byte of information." Moreover, each letter of the "Sacred Language", Prager claims, is "resonant with divinity" ‑— even acting at times as numbers — each, phonetically, with its own sound and spiritual meaning. Without troubling the reader with extensive quotes and explications (i.e., "bloviating") who, if they wish to get the full gist of her arguments can read Prager's book themselves, let me wrap it up by now saying, "In the beginning was the sound and not the image…and most certainly not the word." (One might recall the Biblical story of the Israelites' destruction of the walls of Jericho through just the sounds of their shouts and trumpet blasts. Probably the reason for the ancient injunction against uttering the 'name' of 'God' — too dangerous, perhaps, since we cannot predict the consequences of making a sound with that much potency and meaning.)
Reading Prager, reminds me of something I read years ago that Martin Buber wrote (in I and Thou?) that still meanders in and out of my mind from time to time. I recall an anecdote (paraphrasing here) that describes a mother walking down a street and pushing a stroller with her baby in it. They approach a tree and the infant seems mesmerized by the tree's presence, its "being." The mother says, "Tree", thereby giving her child a label — in effect, changing a 'thou' into an 'it' — which enables the youngster ever after to 'disengage' from personal inter- (or -re) action with it. Learning eventually that it is perhaps a 'maple tree' allows for even further distance. We pride ourselves (and our children) for attaining an extensive vocabulary — even rewarding our kids for doing so. Buber seems to be asking, "Ought we?" We refer to "mothers", "fathers", "bosses", "neighbors", "wives", "husbands", "sons", "daughters" — and on and on — airily using the labels to dismissively define each other — in effect, limiting them as "its" rather than seeing them in their totality as full-fledged "thous". The danger becomes very clear when we consider the labels used at the U.N. — plaques on the tables reading "Palestinian", "Iraqi", "Israeli", "Russian", for example, rather than "Human", "Human", "Human", etc., — turning each of those "thous" which ought to engage us as fellow existent entities (much as the child and the tree on their first encounter) into an easily-defined "it". Words, then, are inherently perilous and the more elaborate they become, the more misleading and deceptive they can often be (again, politicians, theologians, art critics, and other "explainers" come immediately to my mind).
Actually, it seems rather obvious to me — now — that mankind (is it 'peoplekind' now? Hard for an old man to keep up with the ever-changing politically-correct language nowadays) was probably making grunts, snorts, bellows, screams, giggles, sighs, sniffs, belches, guffaws, hoots, sobs or outright bawling, and other such sounds, to indicate surprise, disbelief, fear, pain, happiness, love, lust or 'horniness', disdain, sadness, and other emotions, followed by facial, hand/arm, and bodily gestures — shrugs, smiles, eyebrow wiggling, winks, leers, smirks, grimaces, shivering, cowering, cringing and even sticking out the tongue and "moonings" along with kicks, haymakers and/or roundhouses (more academically identified as the "fight or flight response") — long before he (she? we?…whatever…please insert your favorite politically-correct pronoun du jour here) made images (and, especially before making words). Explaining, rationalizing, explicating, distorting and obfuscating came much, much later — in the days of art critics, theologians, and politicians, in fact. Consider just the word "love", for instance, which was once meant to explain the sexual attraction between opposite sexes. Really? Then how about, "I love pizza — my new car — my living room — my cat or dog — weekends — sunshine — and on, and on, and on"? Sort of dilutes the force of the word "love" doesn't it? Don't even get me started about "art" — something we can't even define anymore since art pundits the world over have literally talked it to death. Even scarier when we think of how we handle religion, politics, diplomacy and other such "serious" undertakings. Where's Confucius and his warnings about mishandling language when we need him?
So…"In the beginning was the sound".
Now, you go and sin no more!