Jan Estep, “Everything I Always Wanted to Know, or, The Thought of Making Art Unthinkable,” Rain Taxi, Vol. 10, No. 1, Spring 2005, 30-31.
in Jorge Luis Borges’s short story, “Funes, the Memorious,” is precociously astute as a child: able to tell time without looking at a clock, and to remember the proper names of everyone he meets. But his natural abilities are fantastically enhanced one day when he falls from a horse and bonks his head; from this point on the young boy exhibits absolute and total recall. Each moment is experienced in its utter specificity, and is remembered like no other: every sunset is phenomenally different from that of the previous day, every drag of a cigarette is profoundly unique. As one might expect, Funes’s capacity for knowledge is also enhanced. Obscure languages are learned in one sitting, whole books are consumed and retained forever, every occurrence of every word is noted for its precise context.
In Funes’s world things are incomparable. He is so attuned to their dissimilarity and distinctness that he cannot group facts or phenomena under any general headings; he can’t process information in any way other than in its direct, verbatim state. Without this ability to classify or categorize, his mind becomes fuller and fuller with each incident. Initially overjoyed at his newfound memory, he soon discovers its limits. Normal conversation both bores and overstimulates him; given his prodigious reading habit few people can teach him something he doesn’t already know, and yet each moment of each interaction is branded on his mind for eternity. Eventually Funes’s only recourse is to isolate himself from the constant onslaught of new details that the world’s ever-changing presence and ever-expanding libraries present to him. In this sad, lonely state, he ultimately dies of mental and physical congestion.
I often think of Funes when I’m daydreaming about my intellectual ambitions. Acutely aware of how much I don’t know and how much I’ve read but long since forgotten, I am a little envious of Funes, the Memorious. Would it be that I had perfect recall. Would it be that I experienced such a heightened sensitivity to the world around me that each moment was special. Then the picture ruptures and I see the complete terror of noting every small detail of every stinking moment, unable to forget. Simply put, you want to be able to choose and Funes doesn’t have that option. Moreover, abstraction—completely lacking in Funes’s engagement with the concrete—is a necessary component to analytical thought. Without it, Funes is more an impressive datalogue than a creative, critical thinker. Still, with Funes Borges fictionalizes an image of what “perfect knowledge” could be like, and lets me ask whether I would want it after all, under these conditions.
I raise the specter of Funes and perfect knowledge in response to two books by the art historian James Elkins, Why Art Cannot Be Taught (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2001) and What Happened to Art Criticism? (Chicago: Prickly Paragon Press, 2003). A self-professed pessimist, Elkins argues that teaching art is “irrational” and therefore beyond the pale of systematic investigation; we can understand other things that go on in the classroom—the teaching of technique, materials, art-world theories and jargon, art history, conventional notions of quality, how to behave in critiques, even a little bit of rogue psychology—but teaching art per se doesn’t occur. We can teach all the stuff that supports art but not art proper. One obvious sign of this is the fact that most art made in art classes is mediocre; most people don’t get “it,” that rare thing that makes someone an artist, because it’s not something that you can pass on like a set of rules or hypotheses. You can’t instill the unpredictable combination of personality, dissatisfaction, talent, affinity for materials and images, smarts, and curiosity that make up an artist. Our hero Funes could read all the books in the world about art and artists and still not be an artist himself.
Though for very different reasons Elkins characterizes a similar silence when it comes to contemporary art criticism: art critics tend to skirt around art by focusing on description and avoiding any judgments about what they see. As a result, even though more art criticism is being written and produced than ever before, it is by and large without much critical substance or cultural relevance and therefore without a mass audience. In Elkins’s view, we can’t talk about teaching art but we ought to make judgments about art once it’s made. However, when the two books are juxtaposed, Elkins seems mired in a contradiction: On the one hand, it is because art by nature defies articulation and thus dissemination in teaching that writers cannot write about what truly goes on there. On the other, in the case of art criticism it is the moral, intellectual failure of the writer who evades judgment, not the innate character of the phenomena under investigation, that is to blame for the deficiency of the writing. One would think that by labeling art irrational on one plane—the plane of its inception and creation—it would be irrational on other planes as well, leaving art critics off the hook when it comes to judgment. Is there a fundamental contradiction at the heart of art writing and making? Or are the key contradictions to be found in Elkins’s arguments?
The answer depends on art’s supposed irrationality, and it is here that I am most troubled. What do we get in return for exiling art from the purview of reason? By calling something “irrational,” a limit is posited to what we can know. This limit both protects and confines. By analogy, consider what happens to “woman” when she is marked as outside the symbolic order, and thus outside the patriarchal, hierarchical domain of rational analysis. There she is, no longer constrained by the rules and conventions that historically have been used to control and restrict her. But her irrationality makes her Other to a frightening degree: psychotic, primal, and not a proper member of the social realm. Her only power is a negative one: the fear engendered by anarchy, chaos, and psychosis. The desired lawlessness makes her no longer socially relevant other than as a threat that has to be dampened. Where it may promise a certain freedom and wild, uncontrollable force, labeling “woman” irrational in the end only reinforces the dominance of the symbolic order and the stereotypical myths of woman’s “nature.” Is this what we want for art? Do we want it placed outside language, knowledge, and therefore political discourse altogether? Where the burdened Funes may dream of the irrational as his only escape—at night he turns his mind to the black void of things that have not yet been built—for the rest of us this escapism comes at a heavy cost. The thought of making art unthinkable diminishes its social value.
It may lack the rhetorical punch of the irrational, but I prefer to think that art (like “woman”) is just extremely complicated. We may never have perfect knowledge of it, in the sense of a totalizing understanding of what it is and how it functions. Nonetheless, its complexity also ensures that there is always more to discover and learn. Like Funes in the early, giddy stages of his predicament, our joy is that there will always be another book to read or another book to write, some new place to which art will take us. In this regard, art is as rational and problematic as any phenomenon that is difficult to understand: whether the concrete nuances of political groupthink and global environmental decay, or the intangible abstractions of time, love, evil, as well as genius. Just because something frustratingly resists calibration, we shouldn’t hide behind a curtain of irrationality. Such a stance shuts down inquiry, and leads to an intellectual irresponsibility far too forgiving in its potential ignorance.
copyright 2005 Jan Estep