William Gass: Idea into Image



I’m going to mesh a little with Joanna, certainly about concrete poetry and things of that sort. I’m composing these remarks by allowing the images to determine the narrative or, rather, the exposition of a few ideas about the relation of verbal media to pictorial ones. Every slide is, after all, a photograph, even when it is the exposure of a text. But what the slide will show will not be an illustration of some point, as much as it will be the problem, and embodiment of the point, itself.

German letters: the letters are recognizable as such, but the orthography is definitely German, as is the calligraphy that adorns some of them. These small units--not even words, though ‘I’ and ‘a’ are, in English, words--are visual elements of a written or printed language, and they exemplify a profound problem in logic, linguistics and epistemology. We are looking at the Cartesian quandary, though you may not have thought you were just looking. You thought you were looking at a few ‘deutchefied’ ABC’s. These letters, as font makers know, are not innocent of expression, but grin and grimace. Mostly they make threats. Take a close look at ‘kobelskraut,’ done in aggressive, thorny, barbed type. It is not a word in my dictionary, but I understand it to mean ‘cabbage head,’ anyway. Even the periods have bumps.

This sign cannot make up its mind about how it wants to be lettered. Probably it is two signs brought together by misadventure. So, what is our problem? In one sense, what we are looking at is an instance of the word ‘towing’ and not at the word ‘towing,’ itself. For, if we were looking at the word ‘towing,’ it might be nearly our last chance, because the paint that has written the words is peeling and flaking. They would be as endangered as the cape sable sparrow, the wood stork or the snail kite. These three words, ‘towing,’ ‘brake’ and ‘work,’ are, what we call in logic, tokens or instances of the words. The words themselves belong to the English language type, as ‘arbeit’ serves as ‘work,’ in German. It is the tokens that do the work of the language. They appear in sentences of all kinds and disappear, mostly without being warned, as disposable as Kleenex. It would seem to me that these particular versions needed to be saved, somehow, because they were sited. They had become site-specific. They’re general, since they have both meanings and reference. They’re unique tokens of these meanings, as particular as any person. So I take their picture, and I can multiply the slide. Their image is no longer site-specific. It’s a little like saving the cape sable sparrow by stuffing it.

Another endangered fellow, the liquor store that bore this sign on its door, has gone and taken its liquor with it, leaving ‘out’ behind. That is, ‘aus’ in German. If ‘out’ and ‘aus’ can be said to mean somewhat the same thing, then there must exist a pure type, the idea that ‘aus’ in German and ‘out’ in English stand for. That pure type lives outside language, just as its referent, the way out, does. This way, aus, please.

We have always, as artists, been interested in the sound of words, but only sometimes in their looks. For a Yeats or a Hardy poem is indifferent to its look, so long as stanza integrity is maintained. Unlike a painting, a poem has no specific visual existence. Somewhere, there is a ‘Sailing to Byzantium,’ indifferent to paper, ink, or thought choice, but not indifferent to its language. Can we surmise that there exists a purely conceptual core to ‘Sailing to Byzantium,’ that lives outside of language altogether, and makes possible the poem’s translation, in any way at all, into German? ‘Arbeit’ and ‘work’ are symbols for a common universal. Every word is, consequently, capable of posing the Cartesian conundrum, as Beckett was so happily aware. Here, wearing away, is a token, a simple, material thing that, nevertheless, is busy mediating between meaning and referent, between an idea and an act. Just as the puny pineal gland had to mediate between mind and matter in Descartes’ system, if there was to be any interaction, at all, between them. Or, if you prefer another philosopher, between a Platonic form and its miserable, material imitation.

‘Z,’ by itself, is one thing. A lot of them together mean ‘snore.’ Around not the token but the language type, meanings gather. Expressions appear and change. This happens despite the fact that ‘z,’ by itself, designates nothing whatsoever. It’s just a letter. As soon as we adopt a notation, as soon as we decide how a word is to be spelled or a letter is to be written, there will be tokens. These tokens will resemble one another, and around that generalized, visual scheme, associations will congregate, like crowds to an accident. We will begin to get personal about them. For instance, to Wallace Stevens, ‘z’ depicted a kneeling person looking over the edge of a cliff into the abyss. If this is not what it might have called to our minds, we can certainly catch his drift. ‘Z’ is, at once, a letter, a noise and an image. ‘Z’ has a place in the mouth where it’s made, and a shape: that of a fallen ‘n,’ which it must possess, however personal a hand that might made it. ‘Zed’ is last in the alphabet. ‘Z’ stands for ‘zeppelin’ or ‘zebra’ in the alphabet books. ‘Zed’ cannot be innocently said or naively written.

Not every language sports a cedilla. In Scratches, the first volume of Michel Leuris’ great work, Rules of the Game, he writes about his early response to words and to the alphabet which spells them. ‘With its lower appendage, a little pig’s tale or a crank, like the one used by the owner of the store at the corner of Rue Michelange and Rue de Toie to maneuver the awning that protected his stall, the curly ‘c’ appears to be a perfected instrument, equipped as it is with the cedilla, which gives it its peculiar character.’ Rarely do writers respond to the visual side of their language the way Leuris does. We have lost our awe of the written word which once brought even proud people to their knees.

At the beckon of the visual qualities of words and letters, then, various associations assemble, and not all of them are sweet. Among kids I went to school with, the tipped over ‘q’ was considered obscene, and provoked grins we hoped were lewd.

This is the ‘k’ of the Requiem. The notation we decided upon for ‘k’ and its alphabetical associates has had two things happen to it. First, it has been used by one of God’s scribes to create a sacred book. The words of the Bible, for example, or the Koran, are not the same as ordinary words. The salt to which Lot’s wife was changed is not the salt of the earth. The ‘logos’ of Genesis is not even the ‘logos’ that Plato knew. Sacred texts cannot be altered and their sentences bear vital, often hidden, truths. So, these words seem to ask that special attention be paid to their bodies. Here, the attention seems lighthearted, even irreverent. Exactly the same thing happens to words in great poetry. As Rilke observed, ‘No word in a poem is the same as that word out of it, in the intercourse of common life.’ The same can be said for a word in a painting or a photograph. The context gives to the word, as in the Bible, an ‘in itself’ reality, a dignity, an authority that ordinary words cannot have. Although we indicate, through the levels of grandeur in our orthography, the level of power that the author of a text may have, and the public function the text may be performing. The sacred word, the poem’s word, has undergone an ontological transformation. The token undergoes a change. This change takes place in every art, and photography is no exception.

First, what had only a use here at the laundry, the sentiments expressed has lost that use. The laundry is closed and the message is out of date, like ‘out’ was, or ‘brake.’ Once we were expected to use these services and heed this message. The token was to be ignored, so the mind might move in the direction of its object or its meaning. We are not supposed to contemplate the message and stroll on, or giggle at the rhyme. Indeed, the rhyme itself calls attention to the bearer of the message, not to the advice that it’s giving. Irrelevant things occupied my eye when I took this shot: color, texture, rectilinear inclusions, decay, form, things irrelevant to life. To the degree the token makes itself attractive, and calls attention to itself, it naturally fails to disappear into its referent, and fails its message, although the striking nature of the sign might have drawn a passing eye. The beautiful and artistically satisfactory sign will sell only itself. Art always runs counter to communication.

Calligraphy can have three motives not necessarily exclusive. First, the letter can be designed to connect it with concepts otherwise far from itself. Second, it can narcissistically concern itself with its own, standardized, physical form: the shape of a ‘d,’ for instance. Or, third, it can be harmoniously related by some designer to all the other letters of the alphabet, as type fonts are, and styles of handwriting. Here, Maurice Lumetre has constructed an anti-calligraphic image, causing various typefaces to challenge one another, and making the interrelated letters deliberately stiff, mechanical and coldly geometric.

The lines of a drawing, like this famous ‘Wheat Flower and Charcoal Drawing of Colette,’ must similarly be concerned to render Colette’s likeness, pay harmonious attention to all the other lines and patches, and still mark themselves as distinctly those of Jean Cocteau. A fine line of verse must carry forward its subject, respond to other lines and remain Yeats, Mallarme or Frost.

Tim Rollins’ display of scarlet letters suggest several designs for the branding iron’s scar. One is like a cattle brand, for cows belonging to the triple A; another began as an ink blot and still another is by Crumb. After all, every adultery is different, in its way. However, none of these designs seems presidential.

The token, when handmade, rather than machine, can possess interest and carry information about the writer and the writer’s attitude toward what is written. Here is part of a poem in Rainer Maria Rilke’s elegant calligraphy, enclosed in a letter. His onetime lover, Lou Andrea Salome, deplored his youthful scrawl and, on her advice, he altered everything. He created a hand appropriate for a poet. It was as poets have it, to tune his words so that every sound interlinked with his fellows. Listen as I say this fragment, slowly: ‘Canst do dear den denken, das ich so,........’ ‘Can you imagine how I wander this way, a stranger in a world of strangers?’ Now, his dotted i’s and coiled commas, his loops and crossings, say to the reader what Rilke believed: that only in his hand was the poem, ultimately, his, and finally real.

If the poem is sacred, how much more so is the word of Allah? A traditional orthography is rendered with such marvelous artistry that it becomes art, itself. Moreover, so beautiful are they in our eyes, how could the sentiments of this section of the Koran be otherwise than right, whatever they are? This is an example of ‘floriated cufic’ from the 11th century. Here is an instance of ‘interlaced cufic.’ Each has a markedly different feel. Written on walls, as at the Alhambra, the writing causes the stone to lighten and, even, disappear altogether. The great ceilings are held up only by holy words.

It is but a step from this example to the methods of concrete poetry. The word is to be made flesh, in fact. The curse of the writer lies in the utter abstractness of the medium: ideas, on the one hand, and their referents, on the other. But these referents are mostly absent, and they are actually classes, anyway, simply more abstractions. The chair, as an implement for sitting, and the class of things that are chairs. Neither of these is even remotely a chair, or any thing whatever. Of course, in French and as the French are aware, it is flesh that we sit on. There are examples earlier than this one, which happens to be by Optitanious in 300 AD. It’s his altar.

Out of the matrix of letters, an image in red is allowed to appear. Certain letters are circled so that, as an ensemble, they shall assume a shape. The shape is connected to the sense. The sense is seen to have been concealed in another text, which the overlay now reveals. A piece of paper, properly punctured, when laid upon a proper text, will allow certain letters to be read and a secret message to be made out, and that’s true, here.

This is Alcuin’s 8th century acrostic. It believes that the connections between words it has discovered are, equally, connections between the ideas the words represent. This is, no doubt, the same error that drives cabalistic meaning hunting, but these are errors arrived at only after the exercise of considerable ingenuity. The lesson is not only should the poet pay attention to his letters, he should also observe how his words are spelled. Punsters do; isn’t that enough?

Now poems--this charming one is Roberd Angeau’s ‘Laurel’ of 1634--are either shaped by internal considerations, as most free verse is--Mary Ann Moore’s selabic poetry is a good case--or shimmed into position the way genre and traditional metrical poetry is, like the sonnet, for instance. This Apollinaire caligram is called ‘Poem of 9 February, 1915.’ Apollinaire had a lot of freedom in choosing his images, so that the result here is as much the result of his strategy.

Albert Buro, in 1919, did this one, called ‘L’heur,’ ‘The Hour.’ Although there is a greater narrative to this scene than most, it might be needlepointed, and hung upon the wall.

We should be familiar with e.e. Cummings’ use of the concrete idiom. Cummings’ poem, ‘Stinging Gold Swarms Upon the Spires,’ sounds another note, however, one I shall return to. It involves the use of concrete, poetic devices for notational purposes. Without performing this poem, it goes, ‘Stinging gold swarms upon the spires/silver/chance the litanies/the great bells are ringing with rows/the lewd, fat bells/and a tall wind is dragging the sea with dreamsssss.’

Among the more famous of poems is George Herbert’s ‘Angel Wings.’ Herbert did a number of such poems, as well as arranging poems in a book so as to symbolize a temple, the name he then gave to the entire volume. The lines shrink as things decay, and then expand again with the lark. They thin again in the second stanza. I don’t imagine angels have to work as hard as larks do, frantically beating their way upstairs.

I want to cite a contemporary example. Here is Hiro Kamiyora’s ‘Water in Ice.’ Many of these strategies come together in the very impressive work of Tom Phillips, who chose as his verbal matrix a Victorian novel by W.H. Malick, called A Human Document. Over each of the 367 pages of this book—which has become, under his hand, the Humument—he lays down a different field of color and design, in many different styles. He allows, however, certain words of the original text to shine through and to form, thereby, short haiku-resembling poems, often wry and usually amusing. In addition, these texts carry a story forward from page to page. This has, in part, ‘entering a Europe of sudden bridges.’ The past A Human Document, published in 1892, though largely hidden, blooms again in the present, coming into view in a way analogous to the way hidden meanings of medieval work do, or as codes reveal their secrets. They also recall medieval illuminations and former calligraphical exuberances. This is strange, enchanted, musical strings, echoing with what has gone.

Some of these pages were especially created for a conference that the International Writers Center held on the relation between poetry and painting, called ‘The Dual Muse.’ We spelled it with an ‘a’ but we wanted it to sound with the ‘e.’ The Humument has gone into three editions, each markedly different. The figure here is Toge. He’s the hero, or principal person, in this novel, a unique combination of letters in the English language. That is to say, only in the word ‘together’ does this combination occur. The Humument is a veritable encyclopedia on the relation between word and image. Instance after instance, variation after variation. In addition to his work as an artist, Phillips is a classicist. His translation of Dante’s Inferno is masterful, and his design for the book in which the translation appears is even more so. He is also a composer of operas, several of which are on CD’s, more easily available in London, where he lives. Here, ‘I am the window your dream stepped out of.’

In my novel, The Tunnel, I used a number of concrete prose pieces. The novel is polka-dotted with visual prose. There were a number of reasons for including visual effects in the book. First of all, after traveling through 652 large, dense pages of uninterrupted text, the reader would very likely be both numb and blind, if he hadn’t been saved by being bored. It was necessary to break up the text by irregular spacing, game-playing, introducing images and font changes. This said, there was another impulse, which I couldn’t realize. This novel, about a professor of history whose specialty was Nazi Germany, would have looked better set in that German type that I began this talk by showing. I wanted each sentence in the book to look like a string of barbed wire, but to the poor reader, wire cutters could not be provided. Second, this book was an anti-novel, not a conventional narrative. It’s purported author is writing for and to himself, with no general scheme or overall aim in mind. Those, I had to provide. He is merely accumulating pages about himself and his life. The pages of this subjective and personal history, so his wife won’t read them, he hides between the pages of a recently completed manuscript about Hitler. That is, inside of every objective history is hidden the subjective history of the historian. Ideally, all of its pages should have been left loose and sold in a box, like a ream of fancy paper.

Third, he doodles, he dithers, he fools around, he wanders. The reader is supposed to wonder how he can monkey so, at a time like the time is alleged to be. But my narrator is nasty and wise and sensuous and coarse and serious and crude, almost in one breath and gesture, because I believe such contrary qualities live together, like basillae in the intestines. Fourth, I used this piece of visual prose because it was yet another way to focus the novel on one of its symbolic centers, the window, and all the other things that act, for the narrator, like windows: the pull-down maps in his history classes; the pages of his history books, as was shown just now in the Phillips example; and the blackboard on which he writes, at the same time the blackest and emptiest of outer spaces. This window is not a window, of course: through it, there is nothing to be seen. It reads, ‘In, among, amid people, each like a wind, each wanting you to face its way, and with the wind’s ineluctable compelling you, invisibly, as might oh so many helpful, steering palms at your helpless elbow: wife and lover, full of silent entreaty, parents, friends, bringing to bear what once one could call the very breath of their being. Students, critics, colleagues, strangers, swollen-cheeked, puffing from every point, like those cherubs of the wind, ‘til their urging, your yielding, flood the whole compass. Except perhaps here, on this little, windless page, where I’m beseeched by no one, heard by no one, unaffected, unaffecting, and can point my own direction, if I any longer have one. Live as though I have, and had, a life, let this vacant paper window frame a world.’

The window now shapes the narrator’s hollow center, a center of retreat, a hollow formed by outside demands, the opening of a tunnel. It is also my narrator, William Frederick Coller’s, picture. It is the only description, really, I give of him.

Wind made the window. Here is Socrates’ wind egg. Coller has invoked the muse to help him in his exploration of himself, so I made an egg of the muses, for they are the hatchers of all plans and plots, and I balanced the egg on a line. The egg is not entirely decorative, however, because it does contain a statement about the novel’s aim and purpose, in complete contradiction, in fact, to its apparent effect on most readers, who found the book, as my one reviewer put it, ‘loathesome.’ Another reviewer, while penning my favorite opinion, wrote, ‘Out of these sentences emerges a ripe, overluscious, deliquescent world, rotten through and through, but so solid that you try to flick the flies off the page.’ I really liked that. Now, the egg, if unbroken, reads, ‘From the womb of memory, as arrows from the wind egg, emerged the Muses, three originally, called Castilla, Pimpla and Agnippe, and likened frequently to the ?, to the mountain springs: quick, clear, sudden and sparkling cold, which bickered down the slopes of Mount Helicon and Mount Parnassus. They were, in order of their birthdays, Recollection, Contemplation and Celebration, later corrupted three times over by unnamable panders and innumerable pimps, cockbods, ass and cunt-collectors, who were satisfied simply to enumerate areas of inspirational activity rather than illumine its dark conditions, elements and causes, and went about it all so recklessly that soon, there was a muse for spilled milk as well as one for premature ejaculation. To perceive, to ponder, and to praise, is the thing.’ Reviewers thought I was running everything down.

I allowed my narrator every leeway. He drew cartoons, and out of the names that the Nazis selected for use by the Jews, he composed this Star of David. In some copies, I pasted a yellow star. That made the book a Jew, though nobody noticed.

Coller considers, in one extended passage, how the Greeks measured the distance from the earth to Hell, though the epigraph for the book insists that the road to Hell is the same from every place. So I inserted the anvil that, according to legend, was supposed to fall nine days and nights to reach the bottom of Tartarus. Among my limitations in doing these drawings was that, although the pages were supposed to look visually interesting, they also had to appear the work of an amateur, since Professor Coller was no artist. He invents a political party, which he calls the PDP—the party of the disappointed people. So I was soon designing, in Nazi style, their insignia. One of the armbands is shown just below the anvil, and inside the anvil is an emblem which appears on the cover of the book and alongside the first page of the text. It is the emblem of the PDP. It is vaguely a bird, vaguely a spill, vaguely an S.S. emblem. ‘Vagueness,’ itself, might be a fine name for a political party.

Here’s an entire page devoted to his sketches. I hoped this would tell the reader more about the nature of this man’s mind than many paragraphs of prose. I could have described what he did, but here the reader can see it.

There are mysteries of life that we don’t understand and, likewise, in this novel. Under the text at one point, when the narrative concerns a summer Coller has spent in the Finger Lakes region, the lakes appear like a watermark. This is the reverse of the Phillips technique. I particularly enjoyed placing things in the text that were likely to remain inexplicable to most readers, since I am actually a realist and want to present the world as it really is: nasty, brutish and dark. Here, the insignia of the PDP appears in another guise. What the months mean I will not reveal. I love this page. I think the PDP insignia, on T-shirts, would sell better than the book did. Everybody’s a member of that party.

Finally, from another text, an essay on the Mississippi, is a prose picture of a different sort. I’ve taken a sentence from that wondrously rhetorical book of Mark Twain’s, Life on the Mississippi, and found a metaphor to describe it. It’s what I call a ‘sentaphor.’ I saw the sentence as a long tow, going down the river, so I wrote some text to act as the river’s banks. But when it was printed, it was printed incorrectly. The right hand margin should have been justified and the inner margin of the upper triangle left uneven, so you had real banks on both sides. Twain’s sentence reads, ‘He was a middle-aged, long, slim, bony, smooth shaven, horse-faced, ignorant, stingy, malicious, snarling, fault-finding, moat-magnifying tyrant.’ A lot of qualifiers for one tow to pull. The ‘he’ here was, in fact, a ship captain.

Now, for some other word-image relations. Muslim calligraphy is so gorgeous that it never merely accompanies an illustration, like a paid-for escort, nor does the illustration humbly serve the text. They are real equals. This example is from the year of 1237.

‘Again in Hell,’ by Arozanova, in 1913, is an example of another way that words can accompany a text. Though they try to look as rough as the image, I still think they’d be wise to duck.

Kubashi’s ‘Rake’ is in the company of other visuals much like it. When one cannot understand the language in which the text is written, one can admire the calligraphy without distraction. You lose, of course, the material it is supposed to be enhancing, yet, you grant a greater importance to every curl.

Notation, an issue I’ve already raised, has always been a concern of mine. In philosophy, science, mathematics, literature and the arts, its importance is fundamental and overwhelming, for an adequate notation does not merely allow us to refer to something, it becomes that something to the mind. The creation of an alphabet is a notational task, and if your characters are Kanji, rather than Arabic or Roman, like our own, the effects of their differences reach into the mind itself, and help to shape the culture. In the 1100s, musical notation as we know it began to emerge, and Western music would have been impossible without its invention. ‘0’ is more than round, it is like the wheel. It is as important an invention and the very void it invokes. The infinity sign was a similarly inspired creation. A score is far closer to its auditory performance than a description is to the object it describes. Here, in a bit of Handel’s ‘Messiah,’ the words and their meanings are cleverly aped by the movement of the notes. When, in a passage, the crooked is made straight, the bumpy notes become straight. When the rough places become plain, so does the music. Here we see two notational streams in metaphorical relation. The tenor stands to the left and reads the score from the same page as the alto, standing on the right, reads it, while the bass looks straight ahead. Now here’s a score, lines of words, and a seating diagram, all in one tidy package.

A failure to conceive an adequate notation can cripple an art. Suppose the comma’s curl curved the other way, and a dot were only a dot, not a period. What might give you a more satisfactory embrace, parentheses or brackets? Think of ballet’s recording in this regard. Without a notation for years, memory alone allowed a master’s choreography to endure. Prosity, as well, has mainly remained a mess. Here’s an attempt to get the vowels in line by mimicking music. Another try, another failure. When electronic became exciting, and mixing media was no longer like mixing drinks, all sorts of strange combinations of instruments and arts were tried, yielding an equally odd musical score. This is a piece from 1968, by, for actor, musician, dancer and light. It is all over the map.

In the late 50s, I acquired a typewriter with a four color ribbon and a wide carriage, so wide I could insert paper sideways. Naturally, I had to play with these new toys. Gradually, I began a composition of a story-manifesto about language and art, called ‘Willie Master’s Lonesome Wife.’ There was, of course, the obligatory shaped prose, a tannenbaum, to include, but I borrowed from Gogol. It’s about a fellow finding his penis baked in his breakfast roll, like a toad in a biscuit. It’s a takeoff from that famous story of Gogol’s. He just couldn’t say ‘penis.’ Among the things made fun of in this work were the conventions of notation we take for granted, footnotes signified by asterisks, for example, which increase until the footnotes squeeze the text out, and eventually run wildly and alone, to become stars.

I bent the straight lines of type that make up prose in normal books. Here, the text suffers a bit of a blow. Then, of course, when that happens, a commentary on what the text says. I took a fancy passage of Sir Walter Scott’s, and put it in a balloon, as you would a cartoon, and wrote it down in cartoon sort of script.

One of the reasons the reproduction is poor is that these pages are mostly colored. Here’s the customary Baudelarian attack on the reader. The pages of Willie Master’s are variously colored. Finally you’re let out of the damned book, but not without a little sarcasm. The rings represent coffee stains left by the author’s cup upon the page. An actual stain would not be significant, but a fake stain becomes a real sign. One ring says, ‘You’ve fallen into our return to life.’ None of these devices are new. These amusements have been pursued at least from Stern to Stein.

Aristotle solved many of logic’s early problems by establishing the notation that made the syllogism possible. The problem of notation is invariably a visual one. The symbol’s subject may not be anything that can be correctly sensed. It may stand for a relation between qualities or objects that are as evident, yet invisible, as aboveness and betweenness. These relations, in Aristotle’s case, between subjects and predicates, he represented as classes. In short, he spacialized their connotations. He reduced the relation of subject and predicate to the three meanings of the copula to be. Subjects were identical with their predicates— ‘Business is business’—or they were included in their predicates— ‘The species ‘man’ is included in the genus ‘primate’’—or they were members of the predicate group— ‘Socrates is a member of the class ‘Athenia,’’ which is a class included in ‘man,’ consequently, Socrates must also be a man. Later, ven diagrams, spacial forms, were devised to represent these connections, and the way premises went together in a syllogism to establish a conclusion. The history of grammar is, in part, the history of efforts by students of linguistics to visualize the syntax of their chosen language. In grade school, we should have learned how to diagram sentences and, in that way, learned that sentences create grammatical spaces, as well as logical ones, as Aristotle proved. A great deal of ingenuity, much of it misguided, has been employed to find the right way to see, not the book, not the table, but the book on that table; to see Socrates grammatically becoming an Athenian, a philosopher, a pederast. This effort I think of as the inner tube. It is an image of phonological space.

This one I call the ‘Delta,’ or ‘The Big Leak.’ But we mustn’t make fun of their looks. Form is what holds the sentence together, and it would be good to get a picture of it. Another effort is a pyramid or, as I think of, the tinker toy. The underlying assumption of these endeavors, including Aristotle’s and those of the logicians who followed him, is that the human mind, though it may unconsciously manipulate mathematical concepts and abstract ideas at great speed by machine, cannot, on its own, gain an understanding of an abstract or inherently relational reality, except through spacialization. Time is the other dimension, but time is always represented in spacial terms. When we hear music, we hear it in its own space. When we do mathematics, we are a guest in its space.

This one I rather like. It’s an Alexander Calder. From the subject is suspended a verb phrase, balanced by a noun phrase. From the verb phrase is suspended the verb and another noun phrase, while, from that noun phrase, hangs the noun and its determinant, probably ‘the.’ Finally, from the last noun phrase dangles the noun with its ‘the,’ and how pretty it all is, too. It even turns in rhetorical winds.

This is the classical tree diagram and should be familiar. But sentences are really not genealogical, though they can grow and they do have roots.

Now, this is not the nose of a TWA plane, nor a picture of the way they run their company, although the latter matches close. It is a conflation diagram, and a conflation it is, too. These things get remarkably complicated. However, in 1958, Professor Francis named and developed the Chinese box pattern, which seems to me—intuitively, of course—to be in the correct Aristotelian direction. It envisions terms as standing for sets, and sets as, simply, intellectual spaces. From Francis’ suggestion, my wife, an architect, and I have gone on to create sentence diagrams, laid out like architectural floor plans, or sometimes to capture other features to draw them to resemble facades, or other times to render them as . This is a box diagram, suitable for the beginning of a sentence by Henry James: ‘They looked, the visitors. They vaguely pretended to consider...,’ it begins. It goes on for some length, naturally: it’s by James. Here’s the box diagram for Mallory’s sentence, ‘And so Sir Lancelot and the damsel departed.’ And this is the architectural rendering. The damsel, being less important than Sir Lancelot, is given a smaller, more subordinate space. Some of you may have read our recent article, ‘The Architecture of the Sentence,’ in Conjunctions magazine, so I shall not dwell on this area of interest any further. But the project will occupy most of a book called Body, Book and Building, which I hope we shall complete next year. In this book, there will be a number of sentaphors, like this one, which we drew up to visualize Sir Thomas Brown’s unencouraging announcement that, ‘Gravestones tell truth scarce forty years. Generations pass while some trees stand and old families last not three oaks.’ We simply piled up the clauses with their marvelously solid monosyllables, one upon another, just as the sentence has done. We have some sentences shaped like coffee tables, and so on.

If philosophers, long ago, started spacializing sentences and then the arguments made of them, it wasn’t long before the pages that displayed these sentences in sober, regimented lines, rectangular paragraphs and tidy columns began being taken seriously as spaces, too. The words, volume, page, column, chapter, stanza, margin, leaf, cover and so on, or body, spine, back, front, jacket, etc., are almost exclusively body or building words. Mallarme wondered why a sheet shouldn’t be seen as a field. After all, that’s what the word ‘line’ once meant, was a furrow. Or the page might represent a bit of cosmic space. You’ve been looking at twelve squares from the maquettes for the poem ‘?’ Still another example of human ingenuity, here’s a sturdy pair of volumes which house the work of Lope de Vega. On the paper end, when we simply turned it around, was revealed what’s called ‘fore edge paintings’ of animals and buildings. Sometimes the paintings are done on the immediate area of the page just in from the outer edge, and then carefully calibrated so that a ruffle of the book will, like a curtain, display the scene. This ‘Last Supper’ was painted on the fore edge of the English Book of Common Prayer, of 1853. When the book is shut, nobody can be observed eating.

In margins and pages, a space has been ignored. We merely rediscover what others have already done, when it finally appears that what they’ve done may apply to our own problem. A book is like an accordion or a music box. Open it out and it begins to play. Do you see the city all right? Watch it grow. Isn’t that marvelous? It grows as if it had eaten something in Alice. We 21st century folks have a lot of catching up to do.

Words and images, let alone words and music, aren’t always congenial. Nor is there much reason why they should be, since their ontology is so different. Although this former fast-fooder is rotting in its own three-dimensional space, its photographic image exists on the flat surface of a piece of transparent film and is, for the most part, inseparable from it. Any snapshot can be taken in at a glance, although details may take scrutiny over days. They can be seen by anyone of almost any age and almost any country, although what is seen may not be understand. Whereas words must be learned and understood to be grasped in any way at all. ‘Egg fu yoog,’ you may be glad to learn, has only a token presence here, because words are fundamentally conceptual, egg or not, and exist in neither space nor time. It’s their agents, ‘yoog,’ for instance, who are usually encountered along with its friend, St. Paul. Reading might be recursive, but the experience of a text, like that of a building, can only be completed little by little, over time. While one chapter is being read, the others seem to have disappeared. Not so for the visually alive egg roll and fried rice.

Naming is not always knowing. Naming is sometimes destroying, disarming or disgusting. The pelt of an animal is all that’s left of this creature. Appropriately, its death took place in a cemetery. At first, we aren’t sure what it is. Our eyes are nervous, our mind hurries to find a name for it. Finally, ‘fur,’ ‘skin,’ ‘pelt,’ one of these, is chosen. An inference remains to disturb us, but remove that little beaky head and all we have here is a nice bit of nest material. I show my students this texture study. They are willing to study it, silently and calmly enough, until I tell them they are looking at the floor of an abandoned building, which has been covered over many years by a thick, crusty layer of pigeon shit. The ‘oohs’ occur and the giggles come. I describe the sound a step makes, a throaty crunch, when you walk across it. A concept, a description, has intervened and given a value to what they are seeing. They see it no more as it visually is. They now have what Schopenhauer called a ‘corrupt consciousness.’ They are looking at a concept and I took away their chance to think of it as ‘guano’ by using ‘shit,’ instead. At least the concept, pigeon shit, isn’t the pigeon shit. There is that.

With this slide, from my ‘Dog Dung’ series, revulsion is almost immediate. But how about the visual of the visual, I ask them. I saw people look at photographs of used sanitary napkins as if they were interesting abstractions, until they were told what they were looking at. I call this the ‘Serrano effect.’

What is this? Inquiring minds want to know. That is, we want a word. Well, we have lots of words, and numbers: FD8456Z. Is that a Singapore license plate? There are several tin cans and lots of wires. Questions arise, of a familiar and depressing sort, such as: What is your novel about? What is this a picture of? Aesthetically catastrophic questions. As to what it is, I cannot tell you. Nor did I take the shot because I couldn’t figure it out, or because I could use it in a course on aesthetic deprivation.

I took this picture, however, because I liked the idea of these boxcar parts, which, at one time, belonged to a functioning whole, being put back together as a kind of still life by a magical click of the camera. This mess had been made by men repairing old railroad cars, as it turned out, and turning them into armored trains for South America. Did the idea of reunion, that suggested the picture, also ruin it, or was it the story about the armored train?

The crucial question may be, are the concepts really operating outside the image or are they integrated within it? So that any idea that emerges is a constituent part of what should be seen. Seeing ideas isn’t so easy. Maybe in this abstraction, taken from a construction site, a notion of what the elements of construction are can be inferred. The elements of construction would be geometry’s, grids, spaces, solids, ups and downs.

I love gas stations, photographically speaking; maybe I have an affinity for their name. In any case, behind most of my so-called serious snapshots, and provoking them into existence, is the work of some real, some other, artist, a painter, usually. And I realize, too poor to purchase their work myself, that I like to create my own Kandinksys, Rothkos, and Mondrians. To look at things the way a painter might, however, is not the way to look at things as a photographer should, or so I suspect.

Nothing interferes with the eye like sentiment and story. I think that Kant was quite right to insist that the aesthetic experience is not mediated by concepts. He did not mean that concepts weren’t available, he meant that they were not allowed to get in the way. A few people who see this photo see a little girl clasping window bars, a red curtain, the household wash, charming, quaint. Well, as Gertrude Stein said, ‘Quaint ain’t.’

Sentiment is always strong for the simple things in life. The edge of poverty is not the edge of a knife. This pan speaks of long use and homely virtue, but what I like are the lines, the lack of lines, the several blues and the fact that the oval is askew. To most people, the appeal of this pan is conceptual: poor, old, modest, hardworking pan, a tribute to the Protestant ethic.

Just as ruinous is the appeal of the exotic. More questions from Singapore. But this is decay of the best kind, the soulfully seedy. Decay can make for great pictures, because, in nature, decay is the result of countless law-governed acts of nature proceeding over a long period and affected by innumerable other factors, each one also slow, patient, orderly, of action and calm. Like the composition of any work of art, to achieve texture and to realize form.

Words can elevate as well as eliminate. This pleasant picture can be easily enhanced by informing you that it’s a decoration designed by Richardson. Actually, it is the eye of the underworld rising slowly to view the dirt of the world.

As my all but one final example of the effects of conceptual intervention in aesthetic affairs, here is perhaps, among my photos, my favorite. But, what is it? An atoll in outer space? A clam and an oyster in deadly combat? No. It’s a car scar, a damaged fender.

These influences are not all one way. The word gives rise to images as often as images inveigle words. The Bible describes a great flood and tells how Noah circumvented it, although the account is confused. Here are a few unfortunates who apparently haven’t tickets for the voyage. They seem to have lost all their possessions. Here, a youthful Jesus preaches and before you know it, his slim, blond, Aryan countenance is on every billboard. Say ‘Jehovah,’ think ‘beard.’ We can all be happy for the great art that such texts have given us, but how much has that art helped the texts, though obviously they are indispensable to the propaganda interests of the Church?

I have underway a number of word and image projects, which I will not burden you with, now, except to say that for one of them, I read a fiction while accompanied by a slide track, somewhat the way a soundtrack parallels a film. It’s called ‘Family Album.’ We see as the narrator turns the pages of his snapshot book in place of the people he talks about. They are only objects. This is a photo of his father’s heart. It’s essential to the work that the photographs, having had their moment to be seen, disappear, so it can never be reproduced as a book, but must always be performed. The photographs also can’t be too good, otherwise they won’t be in any person’s photo album, and that makes my work just about right. The other is a collaboration with Michael Eastman, a really wonderful photographer, on his composition of stereoptical images. The same subject is photographed at different times and, often, at slightly different angles, and then the two shots are joined to created a single picture. When doubled, from the same single edge of a puddle comes a pond. He photographs, I philosophize. We’ll be talking a lot as the work proceeds.

This fall, I’m having a small show in St. Louis, and I decided to emphasize the derivative nature of my pictures. I see what has already been painted, and then I photograph the resemblance’s I find. I’m sure if the painters knew, they’d enjoy their sense of superiority. I don’t know what it says about me, but I do have my obsessions. Safely unseen in my folders, I have my ‘Dog Dung’ series, an ‘Oil Drum’ series, a ‘Torn Poster’ series, a ‘Caution Lamp’ series, and some oddly intriguing photographs of absolutely empty, clear, blue skies.

I should remember to include some pictures that aren’t blue, or perhaps they should all be blue. That would be easier. In any case, this last image is the signature shot of the show. We are back to the question, what is it? I’ve decided to call it, ‘The Ghost of Art.’ What the hell, why not? Thank you.

Question: Early on, you said that art always runs counter to communication. Do you think that’s changed in the ways of, say, modern advertising? Unless you just consider that design, rather than art.

Gass: No, it can be art. If the advertiser produces real art, what happens is that that initially has an advantage. It draws the customer’s eye. You can also draw it, of course, by being outrageous or any number of other things. The problem is that if it’s real art, it’s liable to keep the eye there, instead of releasing it. The sign is supposed to draw the reader and then release him or her to go buy the product. Suppose, for instance, we had our signs for going places on the highway done by Mirot and Picasso. People would stop and look at the signs. Another way of putting it would be to suppose we had a composite drawer at the police station. The success of that drawing depends on its usefulness in capturing the criminal. What if Picasso were doing the drawings? At a certain point, we stop worrying so much about whether the drawings are good at catching the criminal, and we frame them and hang them on a wall. One of the tensions, always, is that the work of art tends to suspend the attention upon itself, rather than upon what it was originally meant to communicate. Valery put it very well when he said that the difference between art and life is the difference between walking and dancing. This is what a great number of people in that period were thinking about. If Mallarme says, ‘Pass the butter,’ we don’t pass the butter. Instead, we swoon. That, I believe, is one of the problems in seeing advertising as art. Often, advertisers are too clever. So, we love watching the ads, but they don’t get us to actually go out and buy the products. An ad that just says, ‘Prices slashed to zero, come and get it free,’ will bring people out faster. It’s an interesting dynamic, I think. You do have to attract the eye and hold it long enough to imprint, but if you just get admiration, it’s not serving the purpose. Fortunately, a lot of art that comes out in arenas that might be called commercial will not be recognized as real art for a long time, meaning that people probably aren’t seeing how good they are. It’s the same way with those great Russian posters. They say, ‘Arise! Revolt!’ and you say, ‘Wow! What a great poster!’ Then you go home and you don’t arise, or revolt!

Question: You said something to the effect of, ‘Words are fundamentally conceptual and do not exist in space or time.’ I guess I’m a little confused by that statement, because it appeared to me that your whole slide presentation showed exactly the opposite.

Gass: It’s just the element of the token. The word itself is a conceptual and referential thing. The only time that we get the reference present is when we use what’s called an ‘indexical sign,’ pointing and saying, that. So we are looking at ‘that’ at the same moment. But most of the time, the referent of a word is a class of objects. The meaning of the word is another abstract set of concepts, and they don’t exist any place. This was Plato’s point, I think. The token comes along to mediate. It isn’t the word, but it is the word as it appears in the world. That’s why it’s so much fun to speak of the word being made flesh. One of our better short story writers, Flannery O’Connor, who was a devout Catholic, believed in incarnation. She wrote stories that were trying to capture that very notion in the art, because what happens when the language is electrified is that kind of spirit seems incarnate and buried in the flesh. But, as the linguists tell us, the token is simply arbitrary. It has no real connection with the concepts, it just happens to be that. Yet, it’s the thing that goes out and appears in sentences. The same thing happens with the sentence structure. It is no place. It is instanced in this or that sentence. That’s the curse of the writer. All artists want, I think, to be able to do everything. If you’re a painter, you want concepts; if you’re a writer, you want concreteness, but it’s all hard to get. I suppose I went a little too far in saying, ‘the word,’ because the word is all three of these things.

Question: It seems to me like ideas are conceptual, but words can be quite solid, weighty and meaningful, in their form, even though it might be an allusion to something.

Gass: Sure. That’s one of the reasons, though, that I chose some earlier examples, rather than contemporary ones, because we’re living in such a secularized sense of language that we don’t approach the word and say, ‘This is the presence of something great.’ We think of it as Kleenex and throw it away.

Comment: I don’t agree with you in that. I understand what you’re saying about signifiers as separate from the referent. But, to me, the concepts that the signifiers serve is governed by space and time. For example, what I think of a chair would be different from what you think of a chair. In that sense, I don’t think that words, or any kind of thinking, is devoid of space and time.

Gass: That is a further example. It is the occurrence of the token in a site. For instance, if I think the name ‘George Bernard Shaw,’ I’m thinking of my idea of George Bernard Shaw. It might not be the same as your idea and is probably not the right idea.

Comment: There is no right idea.

Gass: Ah, there’s where the crucial problem is. We can say there’s no completely accurate account of George Bernard Shaw and we’ll never be able to do that. I certainly would agree with that. But, if I was to say that my idea of him is that he plays third base for the Chicago White Sox, that would be wrong. This is a Platonic argument, of course. It goes back a long way. My idea of a triangle may only be accurate up to a point and it may omit a lot of things. But if the idea of a triangle didn’t exist, when we all stopped thinking of triangles, there wouldn’t be any. I don’t think that’s true. What Plato wanted to argue is that all instances of ‘triangle’ are inadequate, because they don’t measure up to truly being three sided figures with each side a straight line. Truly straight lines don’t exist in nature. There aren’t any triangles in nature. So the whole question of this set of ideas—my idea, the idea, and so on—applies to words, as well. One reader will have a far greater understanding of the meaning of a particular work, with its meaning, history, uses, echoes in other languages, etc., and therefore be ready to read Finnegan’s Wake a lot more readily than somebody else. That’s all I’m suggesting, not that there’s a perfect understanding someplace, but that there are better and worse. I’m old-fashioned and non-deconstructed.

Question: My question is kind of a continuation of what you’ve been talking about. There seems to be a merging of Cartesian dualism and Platonic pure form, with its impure, if you like, counterpart. I’m interested in these examples of concrete poetry, which is, in a way, like making a figure out of the content of that figure. Someone referred to a photograph as a message without a code. How does the photograph relate to those figures of concrete poetry?

Gass: It depend on the kind of photograph. You can do what I call ‘sherlocking.’ I could have shown a photo and then said, this photograph shows somebody’s motorbike leaning against the wall. And the motorbike has a cover over it. Next to it, is an open umbrella. We can infer from this that it recently rained, and that the person who rode the motorbike up and leaned it against the wall left the umbrella open instead of taking it. This is an actual photograph that I have. We can infer from the fact that the bike isn’t shackled that this must be Kyoto, or someplace safe, where people don’t steal everything that is leaning against the wall—which is true, in this case. We can go on and on with inferences, and start the beginning of the narrative that the photograph suggests. We can do all that, or we could, for example, in the photograph of the little girl, start a story. My daughter, who is also a photographer, has found a bunch of early 19th century glass plates taken, probably, in Buffalo, of people. I’m going to write a story for them. They’re very suggestive, almost ghostly, presence’s. But I may have wandered away from your question. I think that my notion, at any rate, is that there can be words in the photograph, but I want to see it as a photograph, rather than as something to be decoded. That’s my theory of art in general, basically not communication.

Question: What does it mean when you say you want it to be seen as a photograph?

Gass: I’m just saying that my theory of how to judge photographs would not pay much attention to the abstractness of its message. I might able to do it—if I had a message that I liked, that would be nice. But if it had a message it didn’t like, I could still say it was a wonderful picture. If it has no message, all the better, because then I don’t have to put the message aside.

Question: I had a question about your concrete poetry. You were talking about your images and wanting to see the photograph without having to decode it. How about seeing the text not as a shape? Do you think it’s more or less distracting than having an actual image with text? When you turn your actual text into a shape, do you think that takes away from the text? With a photograph, when you lend text to it, that sometimes becomes the authority or decoding of that image.

Gass: Yes, it can. It depends on whether or not you can integrate the activity into the object. It is one of the reasons painters and other visual artists, for a while, stopped putting titles on their paintings. This is something we’ve all experienced. You go to a Kandinsky show and there are people there nervously attempting to identify the subject of the paintings. When I do the opposite in Willie Master’s Lonesome Wife, what I was attempting to do was to break down the sense of traditional reading and what the traditional reader is supposed to be looking at. The traditional reader often just goes through the words to the imagined scene. That’s why you can read so much bad stuff, because you’re not paying attention to the way in which it’s being written. Otherwise, no one would ever get through Dreiser. He’s such a bad writer. People are after something else, and that’s fine. They can be after anything. But you can call attention to the fact that these are words on a page, with certain shapes. I’ll use the example of Jack Hawkes, who has wonderful descriptions of terrible things. There’s a tension between the beauty of the description and the terrible thing being described. One says, isn’t it immoral to be writing beautifully about, say, the Holocaust? It might very well be, but the text will still be beautiful.

Question: I’m a little curious about your notion of what communication is. This goes back to the statement, ‘Art always runs counter to communication.’

Gass: Yes, and counter to nature. That’s Rilke’s point.

Question: Does communication, according to you, always have to invoke action? Does it have to be linguistic? In my opinion, you can stare at a Rothko painting, meditate on it, and that is its own form of communication, even if it can’t be translated into words.

Gass: I can tell you my meaning of communication. There are two meanings that got famously confused in Tolstoy’s What is Art. There is communication in which I infect you with my disease. In short, I present you with something that has a certain feeling, it communicates the feeling to you and you go away with that feeling. That is one sense of communication. The other sense is where I say, ‘Gee, I’m feeling terrible,’ despite the fact that I’m looking robust, and you understand what I said. Those two things are both translatable. That is, it can be done in other words. There are lots of different ways of saying that you feel terrible, and of showing that you feel terrible, but in a work of art, there is that way only. It can’t be translated. You could, of course, have other meanings of communication, that might suit the Rothko. That’s exactly what I do with Rothko. When I’m reading Beckett, people tell me how depressing it is. But it’s not depressing, it’s absolutely elevating. Some of the passages in which Beckett is expressing this awful world are absolutely wonderful. You go away feeling fine. So, the work of art is not infecting you with something, and is not simply telling you something you can then take away. If I tell you how to make an explosive, you don’t need to remember word for word what I said, you just need to remember how it was done, and it can be expressed in lots of different ways. I would say anything is communication which is translatable.

Question: What about something like ‘Guernica?’

Gass: I don’t think it’s translatable. Not that it doesn’t communicate something, but what it’s communicating is something banal: ‘War is hell.’ But if that’s its value, then we don’t need it. People used to say what makes Dosteyevski great is this marvelous psychology. Well, once we have it, we don’t need to read the book any more, if that’s all that is going on. Once the communication has been made, we don’t need the thing itself. This is an old argument, going back to Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation. I cannot replace the thing with its interpretation. Otherwise, we can just take away the work, and not go back to it. So, if I’m seeing some particular photographs that I love immensely, I can, of course, say, ‘This is showing me something about the way certain people were, how they lived, and what it was all about then,’ and it may very well. Once I have that, then I wouldn’t need to go back to the photograph, right? But I do go back to it.

Question: Why does it have to either/or? Art, to me, has that element. The oldest argument is that art educates and entertains. You don’t have to choose either one. It communicates, but on top of that there is much more, and that’s why we go back. If that’s only message, then there’s no need for art.

Gass: I agree with you, but I want to emphasize something. For example, when we’re having a dinner party and sitting around the table, enjoying the company of friends, eating, and so forth, a lot of values are integrated into that experience, from economic to calorific to conversational. That’s wonderful—why would we want to thin out any of those? But if someone were to say, ‘Is the wine good?’ and I say, ‘Yes, because I think she’s getting seduced!’ That’s one function! Say I’m having this magnificent dinner, but sitting next to Hermann Goering spoiling my enjoyment of the food, that seems reasonable. It won’t spoil the food, which will be just as good or bad as it was before. That’s what I’m saying, is you judge the excellence of a work of art formally. Not that it can’t have all kinds of other values going on, and be good or bad in those ways. That’s what Dreiser is valuable for: he exposed certain social conditions, in some of the most wretched prose imaginable. It’s worthwhile, but not as a novelist or an artist. There is another way of putting this. There is a group of writers who were just awful people and wrote morally awful books—Celine, for example. He’s a great writer. That’s not a contradiction, in my mind. There are lots of artists who are terrible people with terrible ideas. Degas was an anti-Semite and a misogynist. So what? The world outlook of works can be so various. If we make any other judgments than aesthetics, Sophocles, Goethe, Milton cannot all be good, because they have completely different pictures of the world. They’re fictions, but beautiful ones. Most of philosophy is fiction, conceptual fictions. You can say Plotinus is magnificent, but it doesn’t mean you believe him. That’s an aesthetic judgment. If it comes to saying, ‘Yes, but is it true?’ then most of these philosophical schemes aren’t. They can’t be. As Nietzsche said, they contradict one another. When you have a contradiction, both may be false, but only one can possibly be true.

Question: I just wanted to say two things. One is that I’m a little disappointed by what you’re saying right now, because your presentation was a search for a third meaning, that doesn’t entirely depend upon the form or content, that is communicated, but not completely by grammatical language or indexical interpretation of the image. But what you are saying right now doesn’t make a separation between the artist as a person and his or her work of art. You are basically devoiding a work of art of its content, so that there is only a formalistic judgment left, which I don’t agree with.

Gass: That was the thrust of the examples from Aristotle. What he discovered was that the validity of an argument doesn’t depend on its content. All of mathematics is like that, too. Math is self-validating, and I think works of art are, as well. I’m searching for a further formal interpretation. I want to take the notion of form much further than it has been traditionally taken. I would include, in my formal analysis, a lot of things that are left out of traditional analysis. They are concentrating on certain kinds of things—linguistic analysis, logical analysis. That’s fine, but it’s only dealing with one element, and I want to deal with a lot more. I am searching for that, but it’s true that it is basically formal. I’m sorry to disappoint, but I’m looking for a different, more complete way of ordering. It would be more inclusive and contain more elements, but I still believe the artist’s job is formal.

Question: Isn’t it elitist to think of this pure, elevated art form? You say you’re searching for this very objective idea, but at the same time I can hear the judgment and the subjectivity when you’re writing about a work of art.

Gass: I think what you’re trying to get at is something that comes up a lot. It has to do with judgment, and a so-called elitist position. It seems to me that the whole purpose of culture is judgment and choices. Cultural systems are about choosing to do A rather than B, this way rather than that way, and so on. The question is, are there better and worse ways? Is there a ‘right’ way? The word ‘elitist’ usually comes in to suggest that there’s a hierarchy of such levels, but this is very strange. It’s just a function of our so-called democratic society to put down the word ‘elitist,’ but everybody’s an elitist. We all go to the baseball games, but all sports are elitist to the core, and so are movies with their stars. When they’re not being political, people talk about the better restaurants. It’s the job of people who are trained in a specific area. That area of judgment of, say, what constitutes a good, safe, well-fitting shoe requires certain knowledge that not everybody has, and some people are better at it than others. Is that elitist? I don’t see the point. If someone trains throughout their life to become a good reader, that’s just like being a tea-taster or wine-taster, in that it involves certain kinds of discrimination based on lots of experience and knowledge. That seems to happen all the time, and it’s not particularly surprising. There are better and worse in this and that. But if you start saying, this class has all of the stuff, and that’s what you mean by ‘elitist,’ then I’m not one, at all. If you mean that it’s important to make judgments and make them wisely, and this happens over and over again, necessarily, then I would agree. Societies do, sometimes, even get better. If we think what a society does is just a matter of subjective choices, we ignore the possibility for improvement. No artist can, I think, do anything else but make these judgments, all the time. Allan Ginsberg used to say that he always trusted the first word. And I said, oh, that explains your poems.

Question: I know you’ve already covered this to some extent. You said that works of art should be evaluated by their formal qualities rather than by interpretation. Do you see, then, a separate role for interpretation and criticism?

Gass: I do a lot of this myself, and I’m always uneasy about this. There’s a political war between critics and writers that’s been going on for some time. That’s why writers don’ t like deconstruction, because the critic was trying to take over. The critic was attempting to hand over the rite of interpretation and power over the text to, supposedly, the reader. In fact, he was handing them over to himself. You can see those moves, not just from deconstruction angles. When Jean-Paul Sartre wrote his big book about Flaubert, he was writing about a writer that he really didn’t like. He wrote so much that the idea became, the only way to get to Flaubert was to go through Sartre. It’s like reaching the center of Paris by going through the suburbs. That was an act of power-grabbing. That kind of war is going on all the time. The idea is to replace the primary source by the secondary. As a person who would like to make a primary source someday, I’m against it. But I do a lot of that myself. The question becomes, what role has criticism to play? I think it’s something like this: if you can get people to go up the mountain, then you’ve done the work that the critic’s supposed to do. They have the experience of the mountain, and then get out of the way. The idea, to me, of a good critic is somebody who clears obstacles, makes it possible to confront, experience or read, and gives you the equipment to do it properly.

Question: So, do you see much interpretation these days as being fairly reductive?

Gass: Oh, yes. Interpretation is, by nature, reductive. Otherwise, we don’t go back to the thing.



Analysis by Soon-Mi Yoo



Gass begins his presentation by sampling various letters from German to Arabic. The focus here is the shape (look) of the words. These artful letters and words are ‘tokens’ and they convey something other than the meaning in the sentences to communicate.

Using several seemingly semiotic terms such as pure type (the idea that lives outside language - signified?), token (sign?), concepts (once again, signified?), and referent, Gass argues that only when the token undergoes an ontological transformation does it become art. The ontological transformation of the token happens when the token fails to communicate its message and begins to attract attention to itself. With his loose definition of communication (‘in which I infect you with my disease’) and art (‘that which can't be translated’), Gass insists that art always runs counter to communication.

Concepts, sentiments, story, and the appeal of the exotic also are mere interference to the aesthetic experience. Since Gass makes no distinction between art and aesthetic experience, they interfere with art as well. For Gass, the message (content) and the token are two separate things that normally negate each other (token fails to disappear into its referent).

Yet Gass' examples undermine his own argument. One of the examples was Gass' explanation of the visual effects created by his arrangement of text across the pages of his novel, The Tunnel. Gass explains that he used a window shape to convey the narrator's hollow center. Apart from the fact that it is questionable to assume the universality of interpretation by relying on visual associations (window - hollow center), there is no denying that Gass himself intended communication with his work.

Gass' use of text forms to indicate specific aspects of character or content echoes his formalist evaluation of photography. Gass asserts that ‘a photograph has to be seen as a photograph, not as something to be decoded.’ Gass evaluates only the color, texture, rectilinear forms and composition when determining the success of photographs as art objects. While acknowledging a photograph can have a message (content), even a message he may enjoy, Gass asserts that this message is merely a distraction when evaluating artistic merit.

Divesting art photography of content for the sake of formal purity is as flawed as forsaking formal concerns for content defined aesthetics. Photography, and text, is capable of greater engagement than sole appreciation of successful formal exercises.