Beauty and the fault lines

Peter Stader, Pear Wood Plate, 2012

Peter Stader, Pear Wood Plate, 2012

An artist recently pronounced at a gathering that all interpretation is pathological but before I could ask if he was referring to the condition of the text or the writer, the direction of attention in the room shifted. Perhaps he meant that all interpretation is symptomatic of the pathological conditions of a society that produces it or maybe more pointedly that those who interpret display a perverse tenacity to project their own obsessions onto the work of art and in this way reveal the persistent circling of narcissism?

I understand criticism as interplay between various conversations. First is impact, or as Ed Ruscha quipped: “Good art should elicit a response of ‘Huh? Wow!’ as opposed to ‘Wow! Huh?’” (quoted in Mary Richards, Ed Ruscha, 2008). Impact is a response but it comes through the material form of the work – what is present before us. Then there are the varying layers of context: exhibition, point in historical time, the artist’s oeuvre, etc. There are also the artist’s own verbal and written conversations. Last are the associations all these layers provoke – this is the slippery ground of interpretation, prone to violence as Susan Sontag famously decried in 1964.

In short form writing, I prioritize the aspect of the work of art that unsettles me. The ebony tinge that lines the deep cracks in this pear wood plate.The contrast between the smooth surface and the topographical lines that marks the wood’s age and adversaries. Beauty is in the fault lines – where life wavers, when it risks falling apart – in yielding to circumstances beyond our control, coming to see deficiencies as tools for gaining strength. To be a Pollyanna is to give the beggar a flower; to be human is to be willing to walk alongside.

What does it mean in today’s parlance to be pathological? If we were to be scanned from head to toe – all of us – with a vision that could detect both physical and psychological abnormalities, we would be shocked at the quantity of pathologies and how long we have lived in relative homeostasis within a being so vastly imperfect. Critical writing is an effort to speak across inadequacy, enfolding into itself uncertainty. It is also a willingness to venture an interpretation that threatens to unveil wounds – its own pathological refrain.

Kathleen MacQueen, December 12, 2012