Visual Art is not Literature

Ljubljana, September 7 1994

Fig. 1: »ak«, 1988

I have found out that what we say is not necessarily true. In my student days I practiced drawing numbers — Arabic — in addition to the letters of the classical typeface — some call it Roman. But only someone without any sense at all would call this typeface »classical«. Only the external form of these letters is classical, but their essence lies deep within the classical letters (sculpted) and Arabic numbers (scratched). It is a matter of sensitivity. Arabic numbers have completely different arches, they tense in a completely different way and in most cases they are not embellished with serifs.

In Bauhaus, a functional typeface was developed in accordance with the contemporary belief that all decoration should be avoided. But this functional typeface later proved to be impractical. People read typefaces with serifs and other »junk« (according to Bauhaus) much more quickly. Consequently, the original idea about the functionality of writing proved one—sided and forced.

I intend to write about the difference between visual art and Literature and between visual art and literature—to—be. While I have great respect for Literature, I do not have anything positive to say about literature.

With the word literature I refer to everything that has been imposed on visual art and Literature. I do not think that visual art is only the material employed or that Literature is merely a collection of words. The difference does not necessarily lie in quality: it can be in the place where literature emerges.

• • • • •

There is an old story about three stonecutters. Someone asked them what they were doing. The first stonecutter replied: »I’m making life more pleasant.« The second said in between the swings of his hammer: »I’m cutting the finest stone in the land.« But the third looked at the sky in a visionary way and said: »I’m building a cathedral.«

The second stonecutter is problematic: to him, work is a purpose in itself. But the first and the third stonecutter see well: they recognize differences, they know that facts are relative and are aware that there is not just one form of visual formulation. Consequently they are more correct and more tolerant than the second stonecutter, who thinks only about what has been said and by whom. The first and the third stonecutter understand what has been said and by whom. They are overflowing with creative enthusiasm.

Nevertheless, writers praise the second stonecutter. They say: »Here is a down—to—earth chap! He does not live in the clouds, that one!«

• • •

A writer must not dare to traverse the gap between what he thinks is real and what he thinks is invented. But literature is nothing but a craft that creates images of a world constructed by its Craft. It is no less real than the reality created by an artist. A writer observes the world, stepping outside and assuming the position of an outsider.

Literature is an odd thing. It is thought to represent reality but in reality it does not represent anything. If I observe an object in order to discover what it means, I no longer see the object as it is; instead, I think about the question: »What is this?« With this question, I express my desire for everything to be understandable. I search for literary significance since I am afraid of the artistic. And as I search for the literary significance in the artistic, I invent a construction. I yearn for something to lean on. If I expect an explanation, it means that I do not understand visual expression. But as far as the visual artist is concerned, he said everything he had to say when he finished the work. Understanding is for words.

If having seen »Križanke IX« I visited Jakopič to find out what he wanted to express with this painting, do you honestly believe he could tell me anything? And if he had been able to express it with words, do you really think that he would have painted it? As far as I know, he did not give this title to the painting (the original title given to the painting by Jakopič was »Study of Light«). Nevertheless, this painting has always been known as »Križanke«. Don’t you understand the absurd wish to explain a simple, sensorial, artistic and human fact? Why speak about what I am doing if anybody can see it? Picasso once said: »Do you like birds singing? Can you explain it to me? No? Then why do you like it?« All this is literature that cannot become anything more than it already is. It speaks only lies. Any idiot can see beauty in a beautiful thing. But we should also see beauty in something else. Beauty is ever present. When a Chinese person draws a line and then draws another, why is one line more beautiful than the other? How can we explain this? How can we explain what a line expresses to him and why he does it? Bernik said all in a single sentence: »I flatten black lines to freeze the lie.«

Anthropologists, philosophers, historians, art dealers and others speak about what art is or should be. Instead, they should allow art to say what it is. It seems natural that we do not use the language of politics to speak about art. Therefore, it is logical that we cannot speak about art in a way that is foreign to art. Nevertheless, there is a strong tendency to interpret in a theatrical, literal way. As if it was not important what a work of art can say, at least while I have something else on my mind.

When Baudelaire, who wrote Literature, spoke about Delacroix, the artist, he was not interested in a literary topic but in painting as such: what colour had to offer and what form had to say. This is completely logical, for there exist things, not topics. A topic is merely an object dealt with in a certain way. As far as I know Baudelaire was the first non—artist who demanded that the viewer assume an irrational standpoint.

• • •

The first and the third stonecutter dream that they are only artists, but they are obstructed by the craftsman within. Nevertheless, this is their treasure, their personality. For this reason they try to bring these two personalities into line to avoid suffering. The craftsman is arrogant and they know him well. He forces them to say: »This stone is not that bad after all,« and makes them happy at the end of the day. But in the morning, they wake up to a catastrophe. The artist is a lowly man who is much less satisfied than the craftsman.

The second stonecutter is problematic. For him, functional work is the goal. He was born with a complex, a state of the spirit that is completely separate from the wishes of his family and the needs of his society. He is determined to hew that fine stone even though his family is starving and the cathedral is empty because the portal is too low. The only work of his hands is romantic ruins, not fortresses and arches that would make human wishes come true. He is only interested in the product as such. But valuable things exist only in connection with me, only when they affect me. I use a rock on the road to hoist the wheel of my car. It did not exist before: I brought it to life by using it. The moment I discard it, it returns to nothingness. These associations are infinitely varied and form the basis of an infinite range of visual art.

The opposite side of the same problem is evident from the following story. Degas once said to Mallarmè: »I cannot understand why my poems are no good though my ideas are wonderful.« Mallarmè replied: »Poems, my dear friend, are made of words not ideas.« The same holds for visual art. An idea is actually merely a frame that enables me to build a ship and launch it. If I fail to translate thoughts into the medium, when I do not imagine them practically, in a physical material, all my thoughts are worthless. They simply cannot last.

If, according to Thomas Mann, Literature is the ability to evoke emotion while speaking about everyday things, then painting is the ability to arrange colours in space in a way that the obvious aspect of colour disappears to the benefit of an outline of an inspired thought. This outline is a visible idea: the unity of idea and material. It is important not to separate these two things that go »hand in hand«, not to think in a dualistic way. An original artistic expression contains both. This does not mean that I think hermetically; it means that I do not let either burden me at the expense of the other. When I am not burdened down with anything, I am in a state of constant alertness; I am ready for anything and open to anything. I am like a beginner who sees a great opportunity and not an expert. An expert is a person that focuses only on specific problems and does not see the whole. He always knows things in advance; he has either seen or read them. A beginner is truly creative. And a truly creative person is always just beginning.

An expert is a Platonist: he does not believe his senses and is convinced that they are lying. Therefore, he has developed a scientific apparatus. He claims that he explores. This means that he deduces new properties and relationships from the properties and relationships postulated in axioms. Consequently, he does not focus on things but on their properties and relationships between them. He gains an (in)sight of the problem. The idea about exploration deludes him. He connects visual art with mathematics, trigonometry, chemistry, psychoanalysis and music in order to make its interpretation less complicated.

Axioms as points of departure for any theory are highly hypothetical. They describe properties and the relationships of elements, the nature of which is not known in advance. The only important thing is that the axiom system is not contradictory, or else anything could be proven. But the axiom system can be changed in order to prove anything. The axiom system is therefore invented and any similarity with reality is a pure coincidence.

An Indian, for example, takes another path. He keeps copying a problem until it appears clearly on paper and then he says: »Look!« He proves and explains the visible with the visible.

Literature with a small »l« tends to present things in a quantitative way. This kind of view of the world cannot be expressed with a merely visual medium. Objectively presentable things do not belong in the world of visual art.

Literature with a small »l« deals only with the external form and speaks of things without knowing what it says. It claims to know what the debate is about, whereas real Literature does not. Real Literature dances around the topic, beating about the bush, and because it does not touch upon the topic, it describes its essence. An example of this are holy scriptures, which are not written in metaphors so that simple people could understand them, but because this is the only possible way of describing (in words) the indescribable essence of the topic.

• • •

The spirit sees in two different ways: it sees as if it had eyes and understands a problem (in which eyes may or may not be involved). »Solving« a problem is like solving a crosswords puzzle: it has no particular purpose. I should not think about it too much. What is the spirit’s task if it is not the solving of problems? It is part of a work of art. In fact, it is a problem how to avoid finding problems so that the spirit would not have to struggle solving them. Solving problems is like literature that is always extrovert in order to describe something external instead of itself.

The literary is anything that does not function outside its artificial, invented mental framework. Usually I set myself a certain mental framework within which anything that does not contradict it in advance is proven correct. But when I shift this mental framework only a little bit, practically everything that seemed absolutely correct just a moment ago is now proven incorrect.

I believe that anybody dealing with theory believes that he is right. This does not bother me since artistic practice has nothing to do with the convictions of other people. But usually when somebody believes in something, his belief turns into a bitter sting. In the artistic practice, this sting should always be directed at ourselves. We should not bother about the differences between our convictions.

But a visual artist who writes or speaks about his work too much, who attempts to express his goals completely, logically and correctly, will soon become a writer whose work consists of his ideas expressed in strictly defined expressions of logic and words.

Therefore, a visual artists who is supposed to be silent and express himself only in art should use words only to give brief descriptions of what he has noticed if he believes that his experiences could help other artists to save time. (Here, I refer to Stockhausen.)

• • • • •

They asked the first and the third stonecutter: »How did Michelangelo, Buonarotti, Henry Moore, Konstantin Brancusi and Barbara Hepworth work in stone?«


»How did Auguste Rodin work in stone?«

»He did not work in stone.«

This problem cannot be explained in terms of literature. It can only be explained with the help of the practical experience of a listener, which is unfortunately very rare. For this reason I must resort to a generally accepted medium: literature.

• •

In this article I complain about writing. Because, as the Vedas say, everything we learn from books (or our teachers) is like a vehicle. But a vehicle is useful only on the road. Once we reach the end of the road, we leave the vehicle and continue on foot. Therefore art theory is not omnipotent. But at the same time, we must be aware of the fact that art theory is still needed. As Johannes Itten says: »If you, unknowing, are able to create masterpieces in colour, then unknowledge is your way. But if you are unable to create masterpieces in colour out of your unknowledge, then you ought to look for knowledge.« And here Literature can be of great help.