Luis Camnitzer reflects on the role of language in the toolkit of artists who, like him, "work in cognition," making tangible things that evoke the limitless potential of the intangible.
When I was 14 years old I was entranced by Michelangelo's work. Shortly after, I discovered Ernst Barlach. By the time I was 16 and entering art school, I had discovered Henry Moore's sculptures. I learned from all these artists. I also more or less dismissed them after they served my purpose. The problems they were solving with their work, or the problems I was told they were solving, or the problems I projected onto their work, all stopped being my problems. However, from Moore, one thing stuck. He wrote something in 1934 that shook me when I first read it and still does, though I do not follow its lesson verbatim. I went back to check the quote: "For a Symmetrical mass being the same from both sides cannot have more than half the number of different points of view possessed by a non-symmetrical mass." In other words, as I re-processed Moore's idea, simple symmetry wastes at least half of an artwork's information space.
As obvious as this is, it nevertheless hit me in a dramatic way and has stayed with me, latently, ever since. The effect was not immediate, but over time my re-processing of Moore's observation about points of view made it clear that regardless of what material is being employed, we are ultimately working with information. Matter becomes a vehicle. We may be squeezing clay, sprinkling pigment, shoving people on stage or throwing words around, but we are always administering information. A symmetrical image seems to give aesthetic pleasure and make vision comfortable. Evidently, Moore wanted to reach beyond this.
Moore's insight about asymmetry was important for me because it slowly, maybe too slowly, started dawning on me that the essence of art is not in materialization. The essence is in the ways that information gets organized, first by the artist that emits it and then by the public that receives it, both of whom use the materialized form of the artwork as their anchor for that experience of organizing. Needing to carefully rethink and talk about all this here for the Henry Moore Institute closes a circle. It is not really a conventional circle with infinite symmetries but rather a circuitous trajectory whereby, after continuous feedback, a temporary ending point touches the starting point.
Moore's achievements were major. They marked the 1940s and 1950s of Western hegemonic art and its legacies – both the good ones and bad. The sensorial world his work addresses is different from the conceptualist view my work takes. But both approaches to work, both directions, remind us that whatever media is being used in art, that media talks back to us to force dialogues that have to be listened to by the artist and the audience. This exchange is asymmetrical and keeps changing during the process of making. Creation doesn't happen in the material. It takes place within the informational space drawn between the artist and the material. That space is intangible, which may be why we have never been able to clearly define art beyond the physical limits of craftsmanship. The fact that artistic creation is intangible is also why we fall into the trap of using taste as an aid for judging art – we feel we need some precedent with tangible evidence to ground our judgements.
As an artist, I am more interested in what art does for cognition than in what art does for art. This makes me pay more attention to consequences than to looks. When I interpret an artwork, I begin with an experience of it but then project on to it. If you are someone like me who cares more about consequences than art per se, the big questions become, which projection has the most fertile consequences for making meanings, and how will those projected meanings register in the consensus and help re-construct our shared knowledge?
Another of my convictions seems relevant here: I do not believe artists are prescient beings who layout things that later become relevant in other disciplines. However, I do believe that as a tool for cognition, art has more possibilities than other tools. Art allows us to connect all kinds of dots, not just some. The scope of what an artist can do, can work with, and can leave behind, is potentially limitless. This is what makes art really interesting as an activity. It is also why it should be a mandatory part of everybody's education. This is why I like to refer to art as a meta-discipline and try to ignore the idea of art as a particular trade geared to serve museums.
I started as an “artist”. I went on to be a “political artist.” Then, following political trends that empathized with the working class, I saw myself as a “cultural worker.” Today I would say, with less pomposity, that I work in cognition, and that I do so in my own ways. Because I have arrived at this self-understanding, Henry Moore's statement about asymmetry makes me feel much closer to him than just looking at his artworks. My interpretation of Moore's work through the lens of his observation is that, through endless variations, he explored the visualization of asymmetrical information and built an exemplary system in doing so, a system made cliché by lots of those who took up his mantle. By this interpretation, Moore, an artist known primarily for how he shapes and places solid masses in a style that set a formalist fashion in train, helped me work in a very different, dematerialized style, often seeking shapes in words.
I did not then, and still do not today, have any specific allegiance to words. Their use came exclusively from a need to be unbound from traditional art materials and to answer the question of "why not?", a question premised on the belief just mentioned, that what artists can do, use and make is potentially limitless. This means that I included words in a toolkit, a toolkit that I defined as unlimited. Soon after I started using words in my artworks, I discovered that words can be as confining as clay or stone – those traditional art materials I was trying to break away from. It is not just grammar, syntax and definitions; it is also expectations. I discovered that art that featured language was freighted with an expectation that it be poetry, something I was not interested in.
I was interested in evocation. That meant something would happen in the viewer's mind rather than mine, and then unleash a process, a process tied up in the cognition of the information organized by the artwork, a process that triggers consequences that begin with the viewer's projection onto the work. To evoke like this, I hybridized the media I use. As a student, I was first a sculptor and then a printmaker. By 1966 I had started to use words to describe visual situations like somebody might use paint, or I wrote titles that would create a space between the text and the image to generate intangible thoughts.
Definitions of poetry as the form of 'the poetic' are mostly based on metrics, rhythm, embellishment and idealization, all conditions from which one is supposed to express something that only exists beyond any condition, in some higher plane of the spirit. Therefore, I must confess that poetry as per that tradition of 'the poetic' is an obstacle for my purpose. And limiting the artistic use of language to 'the poetic' is the equivalent of defining education in terms of credit points, or using a lifejacket to symbolize the swimming experience.
In my work, I am probably looking for situations that contain the essence of what is poetic beyond any prescribed form such as poetry. I am looking for the limitless evocation of the intangible, as it is organized by the information of what is tangible. I do it because I want to trigger the potentially limitless consequences of that experience. This other, limitless poetic is something different from the prescribed form of poetry. It is something that escapes any conditions imposed by poetry or by other supports, including sculpture.
I think Henry Moore would have understood.