There is no handwritten or stamped signature on the art works. It may be that the maker will add one in the future. But, for now, as I type, there is no linguistic mark of authorship on any surface. Suppose, then, we enter the exhibition space and view the objects for the first time. As we examine the surfaces it is not long before wishing to know who created them. Even though the producer may be obscure and appear to add minimal semantic value once known, it is a seemingly intuitive question to ask and usually preliminary in our engagement with an art object. But how would we know who the maker is without their signature? Hindered by the absence of an authorial linguistic mark, imagine that we now begin to search alternative features of the art objects and gallery to discover the maker.
Perhaps the most obvious place to commence with is the name label bordering the art object on the wall. The proximity of the label might suggest a connection between the two. But what do we mean by “connection”? It is a trivial point that we do not perceive a material link. It does not exist in the way that we assume the art object and label exist for us. This seeming interdependence between them is possibly through association or “symbolism”. But if such connections are mental, it is an intractable problem whether they are “real” or how such consciousness is multiplex if at all (the latter point we shall return to later). Proximity, of course, does not assure us that the correlation between the art object and label is valid. What if the label were erroneous? What if an incorrect name (or misspelling) had been printed? How could we know the difference? Just as we have not observed the maker producing the art object so we have not experienced the label manufacture or any direct event uniting the two constructions. There is also the problem of readability. What if we could not understand the label? For example, alphabetic characters irreconcilable with our lived experience. Or, what if we could interpret the language, but simply misread the label due to the format and sequence of information? The proximity of evidence is insufficient for ensuring certainty of a proposition. We could argue that this kind of certainty is unimportant and that the correlative summation is sui generis in some way. It has its own truth protocol. But this could not be described as “intuitive” in terms of lived experience. It is a procedure often used when a feature appears resistant to explanation. It is non-explanatory at one level. For what we are looking for is something quite specific in that we desire to know who the author is and assume that such information is objectively to be found. As such, there are potential epistemic problems with how such a feature is known. Our first response was to explore the physical surface of the art object for evidence. In effect, we searched for the shortest proximity between a written or stamped name and the art object. Why should a more expansive distance now satisfy this need? But even if we had found a signature on the art object this would have similar problems like the label. For what if a different signature had been written or stamped by the maker or even by another person? What if there had been a deliberate manipulation of authorship? How could we tell?
Turning from the label we consult the visual style, the mode of technology and conjunctive subject matter(s). Collectively, these are a type of “signature” too. If we possess a mental dictionary of these aspects we could perhaps infer the author with some degree of accuracy. But how could we be sure that the art object in front of us is by the artist in our cognitive-search facility? We could only demonstrate that the art object matches a specific pattern in our long-term memory and not that the “maker” of an internal representation also produced the physical art object. The art work could be a counterfeit or it may simply replicate aspects of our mnemonic pattern. But the internal scheme itself could be false. Our long-term memory may be insufficient and the mnemonic pattern a counterfeit. This assumes that we have the relevant mental dictionary. We may not. It also supposes that art objects are in some way coherent and that there is an essential “signature”. But the creator may not produce art objects systematically; the disjointedness could be inadvertent and therefore spontaneous. Each art work may have involved numerous producers at various levels of communication. The “maker” may not have a generic style then. Perhaps we could resolve our dilemma with scientific analysis. For example, galleries have accredited works to artists based in part on chemical analyses of pigments, binding materials and textiles. But even if this analytical method were at our immediate disposal in the gallery, though it may evince a suppositional timeframe of manufacture (assuming we accept modern calendrical custom, diachronic measurement and scientific assumptions), it could not really help us locate the maker. It can only indicate what is materially present and we would be dependent on alternative elements in our mental dictionary.
Unable to decipher the maker from the art object and label, we seem obligated to consider peripheral information. We recall various exhibition banners during our walk into the gallery space and an exhibition assistant handed a catalogue to us. There are essays in the catalogue that distinguish a maker as well as photographs identifying similar works displayed on the walls. The collective force of these materials, in conjunction with the above elements already previously discussed, appears to offer us a plausible reason that the art work is by the maker stated in the supporting documentation, especially as the name-pattern matches that on the label. Yet the contextual material is likewise by association too and vulnerable to fundamental epistemic questioning. If we consider our spatial metaphor again, these extra materials in relation to the art object mimic that between the label and art work. The hazards of label production (misspellings, manipulation of authorship, etc.) are potential difficulties for the peripheral documentation and its reliability too. For all its mutual inducement, the peripheral documentation does not prove that the name written on it is the actual producer of the art objects in the gallery. Nevertheless, there is something compelling and persuasive regarding a latticework of peripheral (historical/cultural) facts. But, regardless of how dense and intricate is the mesh (and very often the intricacy is arbitrarily delimited in some form because each fact is problematically a gunky multiplex of infinite other facts), its relationship to the art object is dualistic in some way. A link between a concretion of facts and the art object of study is fraught with existential complications. But we might even question whether such a complex web itself is tangible in the scheme of things. Indeed, it may be deceptive. For an elaborate context of multiple relationships must surely presuppose that the components are not atomistic. But these relationships are also potential multiple dualisms that further complicate the circular reasoning (e.g. we interpret cultural objects through contexts that are always formulated of other similar cultural objects). There is the possible difficulty in referring to such an external thing as a “context”. Although involving a degree of immanence, some non-correlational theories of language, for example, apply the domain of “non-status” to context and question the theoretical area of deixis. But to return to our earlier point, a concretion of facts assumes that a whole is formulated of dependent parts and that the “context” is in some way immanent. These are impressive assumptions and, relative to art interpretation, possibly find their roots in eighteenth-century German Historicism and especially early nineteenth-century anti-Romanticism. But what if the objects contriving our elaborate cultural context were chosen to be atomistic, bearing little or no actual dependency? In the domain of cognitive science, some linguists remark that an expression must at least contain something with which the context can interact. If it did not, they suggest, then a hearer could in principle know the intended message from the context even if the speaker were silent. Art objects, at least in the main, are not audible, of course, though we often use speech metaphors concerning their mode of expressing content. The issue then is the inverse of the linguistic example: if artworks are “silent” it would seem problematic to claim semantic possibility from a (cultural or historical) context.
Nevertheless, in our hypothetical scenario, let us assume that we reason that a firm connection between the art object and peripheral materials is essential for establishing the maker. We discover in the catalogue a photograph appearing to show the maker fashioning one of the gallery artworks. But photographs are comfortably manipulated we consider. Even if it were an “authentic” photograph (i.e. without digital interference) it would still only be an image of a human being relative to certain items. It would be difficult to establish if the human being were artificially posing or not, or if the art work in the image corresponded with objects in the gallery exhibition. The actual linguistic reference to the person is in the text accompanying the image, not the photograph, and that, like the label relative to the art object, is problematic. Even if there were a linguistic reference in the image itself, the photograph cannot prove ownership of the art objects in the gallery, because we cannot determine its reliability. We would need to consult alternative peripheral materials, which would inevitably lead us in a problematic circular route as previously outlined. Similar epistemic difficulties concerning the art object, label and written materials apply equally to the photograph. But let us assume that a documentary is playing on a monitor screen in the gallery. It shows a human being creating an art work and speaking directly to the camera. There is an immediacy and cogency about recorded movement. In fact, a model of temporal consciousness is based on the cinematic model. For it has the appearance of documenting an extended temporal actuality despite merely being the phi phenomenon. Yet, like digital images, films can be edited and manipulated in highly sophisticated ways. But let us assume that this film has not been altered. How would we establish that the maker in the film made these art objects? We have never met the artist in person (if viable because they are contemporary). But even if we had we would still be dependent upon their word/gesture that they made the art objects and that they are the same person in the film. What if they had made an error in attributing the work? For example, if there had been an extended intermediate time? What if they were lying, exaggerating, or, let us postulate, even misled due to an (as yet) undiagnosed mental disorder? Indeed, how would they prove the attribution if we believed that the evidence was not credible? Whether we have access to a living maker or not, the recording of a human being on the monitor screen would be ineffectual. For it would have limited importance who the person in the film claimed to be, because this would be ambivalent in establishing that the objects on the gallery walls were produced by it. The film cannot establish a connection at least without peripheral materials that are also problematic. What about the art work shown in the film? Again, we have the problem of whether the cinematic objects correspond to those in the gallery. They may appear related, but could be dissimilar. It would be complicated, if not impossible, to discern whether they were copies or not. Yet this methodology seems categorically in error, because the filmed art work can never ontologically be the same as that in the gallery. For one is the product of digital (numerical) formatting; the other, let us assume, is a material object. But the images in the film also reflect the viewpoint of another person (the camera holder) and not our own. If consciousness is formed of infinitesimal, temporally-delimited specious presents (retentional or extensional, it does not matter for our purposes), how can we be sure that the nodes of perceptive interest in the art object (or phenomenon) that possibly initiate the experience correlate? Is the consciousness then ordered temporally in the same way and, if not, could it ever be said that we experience the same art object? But this assumes a great deal about our assumptions concerning perceptive experience. If our time sense is physiologically limited in some way (some philosophers have likened the problem to our limited range of sight that can be improved with a microscope) then the fluid stream of consciousness when we perceive an art object may be illusory. Consciousness may in fact be fuzzy, scrambling and disjointed, our featureless “experience” the product, not simply of brain reconstruction, but physiological lacunae.
If we have raised some questions about our contextual methodology, it leads us to consider whether the actual enquiry of searching for a maker is itself an attempt to contextualise the art object. In fact, at one level, the enquiry possibly underestimates our lived experience as the signification of the art work (we shall return to this point). But this might not be such a conscious effort. For the procedure that “brings” the art object into our lifeworld (whatever rationalism we use to describe that process) may indeed be the result of something negative rather than positive. If we are physiologically impotent from grasping the natural or absolute meaning of art objects, our resultant “semiotic” explanatory processes (after all, we formulate the abstraction “semiosis”, as well as the explanatory protocol of “actualisation”) also may not be descriptions of how we understand art objects. An alternative consideration is whether these explanations themselves are imaginative descriptions for what is possibly physiological deficiency. It is interesting to consider the physiology of the eye and consciousness in this respect. There are no light-sensitive cells where the optic nerve joins the retina, yet we do not perceive a “blind spot”. But instead of the brain possibly fabricating experience to plug the gap, it may simply fail or neglect to notice, because it has never received information from that location. Some art historians argue that the experience of art (therefore its resultant interpretation) is one of fabrication with varying degrees of deliberation, ambivalence or amnesia. Although there may be some truth to this (though it would still need to be explained why it is in lived experience that we do not think that we are deceived and, indeed, that we seem able to detect when we are deceived in some circumstances), it is important to consider that this system of explanation is self-reflexive. It is also a form of “mythomorphic” constructionism that analogises through its own grounding in, and assumptions of, a “logocentric paradigm of signification”. It is not “ontologically pregiven” either. But returning to our earlier point, might not we problematise this explanatory move by also considering the possibility that experiences of art production could also be the result of physiological lacunae, a form of slight normative “anosognosia”; our brain systems functioning by an irreducible systemic neglect, rather than a voluntary past fabrication that art historians today “uncover” for the benefit of humankind. In this scenario, the “revelation” of the art historian, a feature of their psychological constitution, now becomes the fabrication; the explanatory foundation is inverted. But the signifier may be inaccessible and all we have is protean signification some interpreters claim. A sceptical-linguistic approach whereby signifieds accommodate signifieds (exactly where takes us deep into metaphysical territory) would temporally amount to a form of presentism; meanings are now simultaneous in various degrees of “transparency” or presentedness. When art objects are immersed in this protocol we have the notion that various traces of meanings (some art historians would delimit this multiplicity), including “potential” and future meaning, are, to some degree, theoretically “now”. But signification, at least in our lived experience, appears temporal and causally asymmetrical not simultaneous. Meanings unfold over time and in one way it seems. We are left with a parallel issue much like the rententional simultaneity problem and associated questions regarding coherence where it is difficult to explain how a collection of contents can occur simultaneously yet seem successive in our experience. In fact, what present temporal consciousness consists of is a thorny subject. Strictly, we never experience the present because light rays and neurological processes are finite in duration. We experience a delay, an “immediate past”. We experience art objects in the past (or “later” than the physiological reception of sense data). But the objective (mathematical) present does not exist if we consider it to be punctuated between a past and future. When it comes to our internal temporal sense and how it is extended (how multiple specious presents would conjoin over longer periods in experiencing an art object for example) it is highly complex and the debate is inconclusive. And this would be limiting our discussion to a realist position only.
Our hypothetical scenario of attempting to discover the maker perhaps, in the end, amounts to no more than a brief schematic demonstration of problematical systemisation. The inverse of our methodology brings us back to consider the object of our study that we attempted to question: lived experience. For to solicit who was (and is) the maker, is, ultimately, to assume the preterite; the art object as an artefact. Routinely, we consider art objects to be the imagination and constructive ingenuity of another human being and, characteristically, not phenomena either. Nor do we routinely experience them as being “actualised” in lived experience. We believe that they materialised through the deliberate and autonomous manipulation and intervention of another person who can be known. Strictly, the art object is materially dissimilar through incremental organic transformation, but, likewise, this is not our lived experience. Perhaps we should be careful when assessing what we believe to be the raw physicality of the art object. For it seems that it becomes everything else post factum. Yet, it can be overlooked during the application of linguistic-theoretical frameworks that by their convention often presuppose a degree of interiority. Though there is an interesting parallel between written/spoken language and art objects, the physicality is seemingly experienced differently. We tend to ignore the tangibility of the former (groove/sound patterns) and it would be absurd to emphasise it in experience. But in the latter case, the art object, it is a normative part (but not the totality) of what we consider to be its meaning. Lived experience, forcibly vivid, and the inevitable questions of how an art object materialised, suggest that interpretations too focussed on a reduction to a form of semiotics are problematic. In fact, we do not experience in terms of signs when viewing art objects. We act like the art object is material, that it had a beginning, is a self-same thing and that it has a natural or absolute meaning that we can understand and share. Do we ever routinely look at art and consciously rationalise our immediate temporal experience? Do we consider ourselves watching in the process of looking? Lived experience may be “transparent” as some contemporary “representationalists” suggest. In its seeming invisibility, we are only ever aware of (worldly) objects and properties. When we look at art objects perhaps this so-called “transparent” experience is also one of having escaped the present. There is something evocative when looking at art. We act as if there is discontinuity and that we have strayed from the present moment (with all its subjective emotive contents). When looking at art, we say, “look how the artist did” rather than “look how the artist is doing” or “look how I am doing”. Perhaps the question is not why is our experience of art objects problematic and then attempting to trace (or create) a geneaology and outline motives, because this starts from the position that our lived experience is construed and this, ultimately, is epistemically problematical. For example, it would need to be explained why it is that in lived experience we do not think that there is a construal, deception or illusion. Rather, accepting that our experience is such as it is, a different question would be what is this lived experience of art objects in this way? Because, in the final analysis, it is possibly difficult to say whether our experience (however defined) is at fault or whether a critique could just as equally be problematic due to its explanatory mode of conceptualising its problem. Such a different question may open alternative lines of enquiry in thinking about previous and contemporary experiences of art objects and their resultant interpretations.
Dr C G Barlow. Extract from Setsuko Ono catalogue. Copyright © 2018 C. G. Barlow.
Please consult the catalogue for the footnotes and bibliography that accompanied this article originally.