On the search for a literal art

Caption: Long before Michael Heizer brought “Levitated Mass” to LACMA, he took pictures of massive boulders, above. The photos and “Munich Rotary” are on view. (Los Angeles County Museum of Art)

A few weeks ago I was reading an essay about Michael Heizer and came across a reference to Frank Stella’s assertion concerning his own work that “what you see is what you see.” The author of the essay seems to leave space for the literalness of Stella, Johns, or Rauschenberg’s art while using Heizer’s photographs, with his manipulation of size and scale, to “explore the ‘truth claims’ of photographic media,” to assert, in fact, photography and film as mediums in which, contrary to what one might think, literalness is more difficult to take for granted.

Think about it. Painting, (excluding perhaps photo realistic painting) especially now, makes no claim to represent reality while photography always, at least in some small capacity, does. With photography it is that much easier to trick a viewer into believing they see the truth when in reality they see anything but. For Heizer, photography brought not only the ability to share his often remote work with the public, but also the ability to challenge the experience of nature urban dwellers tend to take for granted.

I find the concept of literalism in art troubling regardless of the medium or artist making claim to it. I understand the desire to achieve it, especially as a rejection of the ‘action’ or ‘spiritual’ claims European and American artists clung to so tightly in the early and mid-20th century western art world. But having been brought up in the intellectual environment formulated by late 20th century critical theory, the idea of accepting anything for what it portends to be, visual, textual, or otherwise, is rather inconceivable.

Stella’s claim of course echoes the argument being made concurrently by Roland Barthes who led the post-structuralist movement and argued for the death of the author as a way to reject ‘interpretive tyranny,’ a state in which we are too heavily reliant on an author’s background and situation as tools for interpreting a work. (Numerous other critics of the time and of that immediately following would argue for much the same thing, see Sontag, for one.) 

In formulating his thinking Barthes was in a sense affirming artists’ desire to divorce their work from the subjective and the artists of the 60’s remain excellent examples of the embodiment of Barthes’ ideas in the actual act of creation itself. (The artists of the 60’s and 70’s would have likely read Barthes, and were beginning with his death of the author, instead of ending with it; they were acknowledging and attempting to adapt his ideas to the actual creation of art itself, instead of just using them as a critical tool.) The end goal of all of this was the creation of an authentic art divorced from subjective content, believing that that art, would approach more closely the platonic ideal of “art,” as opposed to its innumerable interpretations, and would eliminate the possibility of the heroic individual.

But while the idea of an objective art seemed noble in spirit it had unintended consequences. Adorno, writing around the same time as Barthes about art and culture, noted that “the development of the culture industry has led to the predominance of the effect, the obvious touch, and the technical detail over the work itself.” He and Max Horkheimer mourned the loss of the idea in art that comes hand in hand with a proclivity towards the technique or the obvious, what Stella et al., were searching for.

Adorno was of course thinking less of an artist’s overt search for literalness than the loss of imagination that comes with a view of art (proposed by the artists themselves) that denies illusion as an ingredient in its experience; a view of art that strives to deny the audience the ability to think or imagine past the limits of the canvas.

But the thing is, first stripped of the possibility of imagination then of the artist’s subjectivity, art began providing answers outright. The audience was denied the possibility of contemplation by the artists themselves, so they stopped contemplating. Today’s art audience is both assumed to be, and actually generally is, incapable of actively and deeply engaging with art, so artists today account for that by creating art that is overtly obvious in its meaning and intention. Eliminate the possibility of imagination and the ability to imagine disappears.

Frank Stella wasn’t really seeking a literal art. He was seeking the freedom Barthes sought as well: the ability for a work of art to be judged on nothing more than what was present on the canvas or in the gallery. What we have today is exactly that, an art that is rarely anything but what is visible on the canvas and an audience incapable of imagining anything more.