• John Bruni

    Just getting around to reading this. Yesterday, I poured all my time and effort into getting out the vote for a local political campaign the results of which sadly turned out exactly the opposite of what we’d hoped for.

    It simply can’t be said enough that the surface/depth binary is problematic on so many levels. Whatever disputes may be had with postmodern theories, it has to be acknowledged that they effectively critique this binary.

    I teach McCloud’s book in my Vision and Culture class, and my students really like his approach to discussing realism/abstraction.

    I also got a kick out of Johns’s increasingly surlier responses to Crichton’s rather pedantic line of questioning.

    I also recalled a discussion I had earlier today with a former student about my book on science and early-20c-century U.S. literature and culture: I now realize how much of my methodology was shaped by Latour. I wonder what the world would be like if Latour got as much media coverage as a guy like Zizek.

    • Latour basically gave me a large chunk of my career; for about ten years I taught a community college course about the practice of science that was Latour’s material streamlined, essentialized, and applied to a lot of different examples. (Or as I sometimes said, I took out all his classical references and replaced them with South Park jokes. Still works; I think Hemingway said something about that.)

      The great advantage in using Latour in teaching is that rather than just yap about how old binaries are obsolete and gosh isn’t that just fascinating, he does the work and comes up with a way to make sense of what’s happening in place of those binaries, in his case between the fact and the noise. There’s so much that’s been written about how postmodernism has “opened up spaces” for study, but Latour actually gets in there and starts mapping the space. McCloud too, quite literally.

      Yeah, that Crichton conversation is quite funny, especially the way (as you got) Johns just isn’t giving him anything he wants. It’s to Crichton’s credit that much of the rest of the book comes from him acknowledging that and finding another way to talk about Johns. Thirty years later, the interviewer in the Gray catalog hadn’t figured that out and keeps going in circles with Johns.

      • John Bruni

        You’ve really said something: those scholars who take the “isn’t that just fascinating” approach ultimately limit the value of their work. For one, it’s downright irritating to encounter a book that sounds like it was more fun to write (often full of jokey allusions) than it is to read.

        • Back on the Elliott Carter article, we got into a discussion about modernism and postmodernism, and about how the latter seems to have gotten stuck. It’s not really post-, it’s at the end of modernism, saying “hey guess what there are issues here.” That’s absolutely true, but that’s not going anywhere, it’s not creating anything that could take the place of modernism. Like you said, a lot of scholars who are working in this field are only talking to each other, or even to themselves and this is a really bad moment in history to be doing that. In the words of Kevin Smith, do something.

  • ZoeZ

    Another cave art similarity these have for me is how they manage to have the same strange doubleplay of both seeming entirely organic while at the same time testifying to a recognizable human presence, and one that feels somehow universal. “We were here” or “we felt…” (National, at least, given the flags, and I finally listened to Apartment House 1776 yesterday and got the same feeling from that.) In any case, these hit, and hit hard. You get (beautifully) at how, and in a way that’s very illuminating for me.

    I really like the idea of Johns working with the scientific process of replication and how that connects to the universality–or possible universality–of art. Follow the same icons, the same stories, over centuries and see what still provokes response, empathy, emotion.

    • There’s so much emphasis in the popular view of science (and art, for that matter) on ideas, which is just, what’s the word, wrong. It’s not the initial idea or observation or guess that counts, it’s what survives after all the replication, variation, and testing. (Newton had a lot of cool, interesting ideas about force in the Principia but F = ma is the one that’s lasted.) With Johns, it’s not just that he does all this replication, but it’s also that the replication takes place in practice, not in thought–he doesn’t know what’s wrong until he sees it, and science works the same way too. And thank you.

  • DJ JD

    Love it, love it, love it. I had to stew on it for a bit before I wanted to comment, because your description of his creative process reminds me of something I’ve only experienced on extremely rare occasions: a type of creative impulse unencumbered by analysis, almost as if my brain, by making utterly unassessed choices, was actually channeling some sort of muse. I most often experience this in day-to-day trivialities: I thought I wanted to listen to A but then I found that I had selected B to listen to instead, that sort of thing. But every once in a great while, I find myself creating in that mode somehow: playing music I didn’t plan on playing, for example, or even cooking something that certainly wasn’t what I set out to cook. (I have no gift for the visual arts and it is harder to experience this in a written form, I fear.)

    Logically, I register it as a form of less-controlled thinking, but the experience itself borders on ecstatic, numinous even. The idea of disciplining oneself to create in that mode consistently is strongly appealing. TL,DR: I see why you’d say That. That’s what I want to do because I had the same reaction, reading this.

    I sense something of an attempt to describe the numinous and the ineffable in this article, tackled through a rather, well, scientific approach. Your comments about “if something works, then try it again under different circumstances to see if it still works there” strikes me as describing this article itself, trying four disparate approaches to describe something that is ultimately “already in the future, and we won’t be.”

    On surfaces: I somehow remain continually surprised at how often that vague, Disneyfied-Gnostic sort of Platonic thought turns up in our society. It seems to have pervaded the unassessed cultural consensus to the point that when someone makes a statement without any title-case Deeper Meaning™, people need to take it apart to even begin to approach it. I’m guilty of it, too; I need to very deliberately let go of many automatic control-the-message reactions I have to this sort of material to accept it for what it is.

    Reading this sent me on to read https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2004/jul/26/art.usa which I quite enjoyed. I wasn’t exactly surprised to learn that he doesn’t care to discuss what it “means”, however. I’d think an awful lot of that “just plain silly” art criticism actively irritates him, if I had to guess.

    That is a very solid restatement of Occam’s Razor. I tend to go with “Simplest answer is best”, but while that works for the general populace, it lacks nuance in the circumstances where it would actually be useful. I see why you like it.

    • Drunk Napoleon

      (I have no gift for the visual arts and it is harder to experience this in a written form, I fear.)

      It’s possible, I’ve done it, and I know how to do it again. Way back, years ago, I wrote a story, and in one scene it was if the characters had taken over and were doing their own thing, completely independent of what I’d planned, and it was as if I had to stop and ask the characters what they needed to move the story along. I spent years trying to figure out how to ‘turn that on’; it turned out learning to write drama and literature was all I needed, because now it’s like turning on a tap.

      • DJ JD

        I’ve had that moment too, for sure, where a story goes in a direction you didn’t expect. I think of C.S. Lewis, talking about how he wrote with moments of “inspiration” that he connected; his goal as a writer was to have as much inspiration and as little connective tissue in his work as possible. I suppose that could be a type of this, but it’s still much more deliberate a process in its own way than what I was trying to describe here.

        Maybe it’s just me, or maybe (well, probably) I’m just not that good of a writer, but when I write, I still have to keep my head in the space of the setting and action happening in the story. The story will surprise me but it’s still the same story. It’s not like, say, jazz, where I’m suddenly playing something I didn’t expect to play, that still fits in with the key and style of the larger piece. Those moments are transcendent, and very, very rare.

    • Sometimes I’m sure Johns is thinking “look asshole, you don’t come here and mix my paints or suggest colors when I’m doing my job, so stop trying to get me to do yours.” He’s a Southern gentleman, though, so he’s polite enough not to say it.

      One of the fascinating things about Johns is that he allows for spontaneity but he’s not at all improvising. Again, it’s that sciencing (as @tristannankervis:disqus suggested) of doing it and seeing if it works. He’s not riffing, he’s experimenting, and he keeps some results and rejects others. It has to happen in practice though, not in thought.

  • Drunk Napoleon


    “Surface” gets a bad reputation in our critical vocabulary. Depths, underlying meanings, what’s behind this, three-dimensional are all compliments; superficial, shallow, nothing past the surface, two-dimensional are all insults.

    Lately, I’ve been using the phrase ‘superficial reaction’ to talk about my raw emotional reaction to something, and I always worry that it comes off as saying it’s unimportant when, you know, if I’m talking about it it’s the exact opposite of unimportant. My ability to write criticism took a massive leap forward when I started valuing and studying that raw reaction, and I credit you and your work for pushing me into valuing it.

    I try to avoid the term “scientific method” because I’ve never seen just one, and as Latour sez, science makes a great noun but a lousy adjective and worse adverb

    How do you feel about using it as a verb, a la “science the shit out of this”?

    Re Johns as a scientist: your description of his overall career at that stage makes him sound like a drama writer, starting with, say, the first American flag painting acting as an inciting incident, causing the next painting, which causes the next painting, and so on and so forth. It even has the raw/superficial emotional reaction of drama – a straightforward sense of existing that derives full power from seeing the sequence of actions. And right when I was thinking “well, you could also see it as a literary plot structure where the individual beats (paintings) are as simple as possible and are part of a larger context (periods in Johns’ career)”, you went and said the same thing but better!

    • “Science” makes a fine verb too, as long as we recognize there are many activities that are sciencing.

      As you can see, some of your writings about literature inspired that section. “Drama” doesn’t quite fit Johns, because drama is the demonstration of a law that already exists. Hubris, consequence, responsibility, love, all these things are well-established and play out in drama; in fact, drama is about the conflict between those well-established things. What gives Johns’ work the quality of science is that it’s about that work of establishing. If drama is about the necessary act, then Johns does the pre-dramatic work of finding out (or creating) the things that are necessary.

  • pico79

    Was out of town all last week so I missed this. This is really fantastic work. Lemme sit on it a bit and let some of the ideas percolate. (Coincidentally – I was on vacation, one part of which involved a brief museum trip, and a Jasper Johns work.)

    • pico79

      Okay, so… phew, a lot to unpack here. Still recovering a bit from the trip and also in a bit of a haze over the news today. Came back here to get away from real world for a bit. Apologies for the ramble:

      First, how’d you get into my subconscious mind? Shklovsky and my favorite Errol Morris film (and favorite documentary overall) and the Johns painting I was looking at last week? This stalkerish thing is a little creepy, sir. Please stop entering my brain.

      I know so little about Johns and I wish I’d given more time/thought to this “White Flag” other than just admiring it for what it is. I’m really fascinated by the analysis of his work as, effectively, primitive (or contemporarily primitive, if that makes sense), which is different from the fashionable, peformative primitivity of the early 20th century. Some real masterpieces in that crop, but it’s hard not shake that feeling that they’re engaged in a kind of patronizing adoption of “unsophisticated” art (“I, too, can paint like a savage!”), where the Johns approach, which isn’t performative primitivity at all, seems to wear better – some of the other stuff looks so firmly a product of its era that the whole performance overwhelms the piece, whereas I don’t think I’d have been able to say exactly when Johns did his work (I mean, clearly 20th century, but) without the aid of a caption. I’m skeptical of timelessness as a value, but I see what you’re getting at with his work.

      Also, interesting to compare him to Pollock on the grounds of performativity alone. With Pollock sometimes the story about how the painting comes together takes primacy over the product: the painting is a consequence of the action, which mostly just allows us to focus the attention back on the actor and the action, regardless of whether we find value in the work. (Overstating the point, but you know what I mean.) You can see every brushstroke in Johns, but it doesn’t seem to be leading us back to the brush or the arm that wielded it. Very different kind of engagement.

      Johns has the advantage of working on a surface where we only see everything at once. [unlike literature]

      This got me thinking a bit about its exact opposite: do you know Ilya Repin’s work at all? We’d usually squeeze him into a late 19th century realism mode with touches of impressionism in his later work, but what interests me about him is that his large canvasses are unintelligible without reading them in a literary way. He’s not the first to pack a lot of details into a frame so that you can pick out individual stories or threads, but I do think he’s unique in that he frequently organizes around the reconstruction of a particular “literary” moment that forces us to reconstruct along a specifically narrative arc. “They Did Not Expect Him” (1884) is probably the best example of this. Every detail matters: the age, sex, posture, expression of each individual in the room, once decoded and aggregated, tells a short story about how and why this moment occurred, and it requires things we don’t usually exercise in conventional representational analysis like “character motivation.” The fully viewed “at once” canvas only becomes intelligible after we’ve applied literary analysis to its details. Maybe we even thought it ugly before we spent time “interpreting” it.

      Repin’s the undoubted superstar of Russian art, so maybe it’s no surprise Russia also produced its exact opposite as a backlash, people like Malevich and his suprematists. Nothing in art matters – not interpretation or story or theme or anything exterior, and representation is a lie – other than the primacy of shape and color, so let’s reduce art that to the single shape, the single color, and maybe venerate it as an idol for that extra touch of blasphemy. Then let’s kick it up a notch: a white square on a white canvas (1918). Much more of that probing experimentalism you described with Johns: a new color, a new shape, a new angle, trying to probe the limits of where his muse was taking him. Unlike Johns, though, he expressed a lot of (pseudo-mystical) theory behind what he was doing.

      By the way, part of the reason I didn’t get to spend as much time with Johns at the Met was that I have this thing for Thomas Hart Benton and had no idea they’d converted an entire room to his “America Today” mural, and I nearly passed out when I walked into the room on accident. Another discussion for another day.

      Anyway, I promised a ramble.

      • Didn’t Julius tell you that when you officially become a Solute writer, you join our collective hive mind? It’s like Pacific Rim but the Jaeger hasn’t been built yet for all of us. Anyway, no melding between 10pm and midnight, that’s @disqus_wallflower:disqus’s time!

        The sciencing–the repetition, the reduction down to the fewest images–takes away the performative aspect, and that’s something that really distinguishes Johns. The whole “performing the ancient art” thing is just doomed to fail; we can make a lot of suppositions about the cave artists but one thing I’m pretty darn sure of is that they didn’t see themselves as cave artists. Johns didn’t set out to do anything like that, he arrived there.

        He also explicitly said that he didn’t want his work to be a reflection of himself, and it takes time and effort to get to that point. He once said his best friend was John Cage, and you see the same practice: setting up methods that deliberately strip away personality. It’s not really a paradox to say that if you do that right, you produce works that aren’t personal but are unique. (One of the problems with individualism is that it asserts how different we are from each other, and then discovers that we aren’t.) I left unexplored here the connection between Johns’ and Cage’s homosexuality, the aggressive masculine personality of Pollock, and their diverging approaches to art simply because others have written on that.

        Another thing to appreciate about Johns is how he reduces his work to the fewest necessary images, but no farther. He doesn’t go into the white-square-on-white-canvas territory because then it’s not about images, but about ideas. He’s not a conceptual painter and never has been.

        Haven’t heard of Repin, but that sounds both great and wonderfully Russian, to use painting as a vehicle for literature with that level of detail. I will check it out! And thanks.