Art is not a message

This talk is meant to express an idea. The idea is that works of art are not, characteristically, acts of communication by means of which artists seek to convey a message to those who encounter the work. To think that they are such messages is to confuse art with a group of its minor genres: the allegory, the fable, the parable.

Messages are the kind of thing one nowadays collects on telephone answering machines. (To update this talk I would now have to say: mobile phones). I tune in to this medium to discover such things as that my new spectacles are ready for collection, that my daughter has forgotten her maths homework and would I please drop it off, and that my old friend John is fed up that I haven't been in touch. These messages are calls to action. A work of art, in contrast, is characteristically not so much a call to action as an invitation to, an opportunity for, feeling and reflection. The invitation or opportunity arises from the fact that in works of art, artists characteristically express or represent something in their chosen medium. That 'something' may be a situation, a vision, a feeling, an idea or even an ideology. I don't want to deny that there is religious and political art, but do want to say that when it is art, it is doing something more or something other than message-bearing.

I have no doubt that someone will discover - if they have not already discovered - the possibility of leaving telephone messages which are more like works of art than telephone messages. All you need is a telephone directory, a telephone, and a conceptual artist. I don't think that alters my point. Any medium can be used both artistically and non-artistically.We can paint houses as well as pictures; write reports as well as poems; walk as well as dance. A conceptual artist would not be hard put to use the telephone answering machine artistically, according to his or her lights. That is not to say that every medium lends itself equally well to artistic and non-artistic purposes. For purposes of art, the telephone answering machine is probably no more yielding to the wordsmith than asbestos is to the sculptor or jeweller, though SMS messages have proved long enough to enable a new genre of very short stories. For non-artistic purposes, instrumental music has very little to commend it. In fact, it only works when it is linked by a code to a linguistic message. In that case, drum beats can carry messages effectively across forests and torrents.

The moral is that if you want to be an artist, get a medium which is good for art-making.

There is, however, no parallel simple moral to be stated about the subject matter of art. It is a matter of some controversy whether just any situation, vision, feeling or idea lends itself to expression or representation in some medium, artistically handled. In debates around Holocaust literature, we find expressed the idea that to make art out of human misery is morally repugnant, and that a proper moral reaction to such work stands or ought to stand in the way of the kinds of engagement with a work of art we reckon right: taking disinterested pleasure, for example. Again, in the eighteenth century, in Lessing's Laocoön we find expressed the idea that the visual artist ought to avoid too realistic depiction of such things as the loss of control of bladder and bowel which terror can induce. That is no fit subject matter for art, says Lessing. Contemporary debates about pornography include argument about whether anything and everything can be a fit subject for art. I think these are fascinating issues to explore, but they do not fall within the scope of what I want to talk about today, though I do need now to stay with the artist and subject-matter for a while.

For an artist's concern with their subject matter - with what it is that they want to express or represent - can be so urgent and unreflected upon that it constitutes itself an obstacle to the successful artistic handling of a medium. What I mean can be indicated by an analogy. It may be therapeutic for me to daub out my anguish or shout out my hatred, but if in so doing I don't handle my medium well, I can't produce a good painting or a good poem. I produce a symptom or index of my feelings, not art. Art is not a symptom. Analogously, I may be so preoccupied with the religious gospel or political analysis I wish to promote that I may fail to cast it into a form which an audience can appreciate. Obsessed with my message, I am careless about my medium. The most likely result is that you will find me a bore. Oscar Wilde in The Decay of Lying thinks her religio-philosophical preoccupations make Mrs Humphry Ward a bore; of her earnest novels, he says that 'one yawns and forgets' .

Is it then better if the artist has no subject matter at all? To put it in the form of the Modernist question which arose from engagement with Wildean aestheticism and Bloomsbury formalism, Should all art aspire to the condition of (instrumental) music?

Put like this, we may beg the question by assuming that instrumental music - or, at any rate, the superior kinds of non-programme music - is in fact devoid of subject matter. I do not think that is the case, any more than I think that the paintings of, say, Mark Rothko are devoid of subject-matter. A work is not abstract just because it does not figure the external world. It may perfectly well figure - that is, express or represent - inner human states of mood, feeling and emotion without doing so by means of a figuration of the world of physical objects and human actions. If it figures such inner states, then it is simply wrong to call it abstract or formal. What poses us a problem is not then abstraction or formalism but the opaqueness of the semiotic relation obtaining between the subjective state and its visual or musical expression: we do not immediately see how one thing stands for another. But that is quite different to saying that there is no standing for to be seen. With practice and guidance, the semiotic relation may cease to be opaque and become more and more transparent, though not necessarily free of vagueness or ambiguity. After all, it is a very bold move to seek to find an analog, an icon, for human feelings in the disposition of patches of colour on canvas or moments of sound in silence.

But that the class of representational art is larger than, and includes, the class of figurative art work, does not dispose of the question whether there can be properly abstract or formal - that is, non-representational - art. I am going to try to dispose of this question in a radical fashion by claiming that without something to express or represent, we have no means or motive for engaging with a medium artistically. The medium will spin idly in our hands. Equally, I want to say that if we know too well what it is that we wish to express or represent, then once again, there is no means or motive for engaging artistically with a medium. In both cases, the best one can hope for is a display of craft skill.

The claims arise from my sense - my vision, if you like - that a work of art characteristically emerges in an encounter betwen an artist and a medium, such that the artist, though having something to express, does not know in advance the full purpose or likely outcome of the engagement. The artist does not start with a stateable set of aims and objectives, or a set of criteria against which success in achieving them can be measured. This can be true even when something is being done by commission. The artist starts with a drive to engage with the medium, and some notions about what focusses the drive - some notions of the 'aboutness' of the engagement. These may be vague or reasonably precise. In proceeding with the encounter with the medium, several foci of attention have to be held together simultaneously. It may help if I'm concrete, so let me give the example of writing a short story - something I do from time to time.

I may know, as I begin to write, what the story - which I hope will emerge from my writing - is going to be about. But it is most unlikely that my task is now no more than a craft task of turning words into story structure, paragraph structure and sentence structure. The story develops as I write, in my engagement with the medium of the written word, just as a composition develops at the piano or on the guitar. In developing as I write, the story acquires - as we say - a life of its own, such that the aboutness of the story may change or at any rate emerge into clearer focus. I may actually lose control over the aboutness of the story, just as I may lose control over sentence structure or story structure if my attention is focussed on other parts of my task. The necessity of revision indexes the loss of control that characteristically occurs at some point in our engagement with our medium. My point is that such loss of control affects subject-matter as much as style. It is not just that we may find a particular transition in the story too abrupt and needing to be oiled with another paragraph. It is also that we may find a character we have created too abrupt, and needing to be softened at the edges. Rewriting a character is just like repainting a face. In each case, we only fully discover or invent the character we want as we read over what we have written or look at the face we have painted.

If you asked me 'How do you write a story?' I'd reply, 'I make it up as I go along'. And I'd say exactly the same about my academic work, including talks like this one. If this wasn't the case, no discovery, no invention could occur.

The words 'discovery' and 'invention' do duty, at least as frequently, in talk about what scientists do. Now, in experimental science, the outcome of most experiments is known in advance. If an experiment fails to produce the desired result, we repeat it until it does. This is what happens in the school lab. If you like, the doing of such experiments is designed to communicate a message known in advance. Of course, the school pupil experimenter is also acquiring laboratory skills - the skills of the scientist's craft, and these are essential acquisitions.

But not all experiments are like those in school labs. Some experiments are designed and carried out in the context of genuine uncertainty, and through them we may discover something new. Less often remarked, some experiments are inventions of new ways of showing what is already known. Like a better proof in mathematics, they may show the truth of something more perspicuously.

As with science, so with art. Some art is like the standard experiment: it illustrates something already known. It lends itself to a verbal paraphrase of what it is about, and this verbal paraphrase will match the guiding intention. But not all art is like this. Some art is a fresh enquiry, and neither the artist's starting input of energy and intention nor the art work output may lend itself to easy paraphrase. We won't begin to be able to paraphrase the work until we have assimilated its new truth and made it reflectively available to consciousness in acts of (perhaps implicit) comparison with other works.

Let me put it like this, taking my favourite phrase from the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss. He writes of the natural world as providing pre-literate cultures with 'things good to think with'. The animals and plants around us and the moon and stars above provide essential metaphors for thinking. I want to say that the artist's medium functions as a thing good to think and feel with, a medium for exploration of both outer and inner worlds. Without a medium, such exploration is impossible. With a medium, it is possible but will not happen if we are fossilised in our habits of thinking and feeling and determined only to travel over known territory. Nor will it happen if our medium presents itself to us only as a toy for formal play, uninformed by any thinking or feeling about matters of human concern.

That a medium is something we can think and feel with does not constrain how we use it. Art uses of a medium are constrained by acceptance of some notion that the medium itself must be well used, and not just used instrumentally. It is contested what such well use consists in, though most commonly we think in terms of interesting and pleasurable qualities of form. I have always liked to use as an example the film Babette's Feast . There is little enough action in this film to sustain interest, and interest is sustained by exemplary film editing which paces and rewards our interest and attention. The skill in use of the medium here is a craft skill informed by a sensibility enlarged enough to yield a style.

I'll dwell on this point for a moment and say that artful working of a medium is only possible when the artist has enough craft skill and confidence to be free to attend to style. In a slogan, L'art, c'est le style même - art is style itself. There is no great artist who is not a great stylist, and it is by their styles that we know our artists. Indeed, one philosopher of the visual arts, Richard Wollheim in his book Painting as an Art sees the search for a style as providing the thread of an artistic life. In the literary arts, the search for a style is often discussed in terms of finding one's voice. It may take a lifetime of artistic endeavour to find it. If it is found, we then speak of it as 'characteristic' or 'perfected' or 'inimitable'.

Style is a better index of authorship - a better signature - than subject matter, which may be changed rather more freely and borrowed more freely. We can all try to paint sunflowers or write about first love, but we can't do it - other than as pastiche or copying - in the style of van Gogh or Turgenev.

Post-modernism says nice things about pastiche, copying and borrowing, I know. What is wrong with them is that they triangulate a first-person, first-hand encounter with a medium in a too direct and less benign way than does our inevitable triangulation by the traditions established in our art medium. We are stuck with those just as we are stuck with our parents. But to manage the anxiety of influence by over-compensatory self-conscious use of the work of others is a different matter.

For just as it is often said that there can be no second-hand engagement with the art object - no second-hand aesthetic experience, no second-hand evaluations - so I want to say, there can be no second-hand art-making. No one else can look at a picture for me, sparing me the trouble of a visit to the Tate Gallery (' Yes, it's a wonderful painting. No, I haven't seen it, but my wife has.... '). Analogously, no one else can paint a picture for me, sparing me the trouble of looking at the world and of developing a style in my medium. When we engage with a medium, whether as audience or artist, we have to do so 'in and for ourselves'.

Not only this. Engagement with a medium has absolute priority over 'what we may want to say'. Consider the fundamental distinction of truth and fiction. Suppose we are telling a story, based in truth. We are not writers until we are prepared to sacrifice truth to the needs of the story: the need to make something well-formed. If a character in real life has four brothers, in a story he may retain four or but he may also end up with three, two, one or none, depending on the story requirements. If the story needs no brothers, then we have got our priorities wrong if, in the interests of veracity, we insist on handing them out to him. We have sacrificed fiction to truth and that is wrong.

Of course, it may be a mark of a writer's accomplishment that they can combine the demands of both truth and fiction. This is the very difficult demand made on writers by the genre of autobiography.

And I do not want to deny that style emerges in the service of larger purposes. I don't want to come out of this talk as a mere Formalist. After all, I started out expressing scepticism about the possibility of art which was strictly abstract, purely formal, uninformed by the desire to articulate something about something of human concern. A medium, used artistically, is only proved good to think or feel with to the extent that the resultant work expresses or represents a truth or some truths, however vague, ambiguous or difficult to locate. An audience must, in principle, be able to find in the work some points of contact with human concerns. The work must bring us into touch with feelings, moods, emotions, ideas, visions, and even with theories and ideologies.

Art is cognitive, and it is one of the great ironies of recent Art that the term 'Conceptual Art' has been appropriated for work which is not cognitive at all, but merely formal - all the conceptual work being done outside the work by the artist's manifesto and the audience's laboured attempts to see the point. In contrast, art is properly cognitive when the work itself is the thing which enlarges our mental world with new thoughts, new feelings or a fresh perception of old thoughts and feelings. In the National Gallery of Scotland hangs perhaps the most famous painting by a Scottish artist, Sir Henry Raeburn's The Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch. Now I know nothing of the life of Sir Henry Raeburn, and believe that few of his other paintings merit much attention. But I do find that this painting works as a thing to think and feel with; it provokes me to thoughts and feelings of my own.

I look at it and find myself drawn into meditation on the closeness of Nature and Culture, the power of the former and the fragility of the latter. For the picture shows a diminutive but stylish cleric skating on an impassive frozen loch, surrounded by sombre crags. I reflect also on the odd ways in which we are combined as Mind and Body. For here a cleric, whose habit is reading and speaking the word of God, sails forth in a risky physical exercise which requires a quite different application of his powers of mental concentration. I look at the painting again and I think that it is a splendid example of Conceptual Art.

At this point you may reasonably want to ask me to tell you why this painting is not to be seen as message-bearing. Let me go back to my telephone answering machine. That instrument collects messages. It does not, unfortunately, serve to enlarge my mental world with new thoughts, new feelings, new ideas and truths. or fresh perspectives on old ones. People leaving messages know what they are saying and why. Messages belong to the world of taken-for- granted certainties. In contrast, the artist trying to express or represent a truth has to accept that they may have got it wrong. The scientist assumes this risk too, but the artist, unlike the scientist, is at double jeopardy: that their vision may prove to be wrong or trite or otherwise flawed and also that their art - their handling of their medium - may be reckoned unsuccessful. Though mathematicians prefer an elegant proof to an inelegant one, they will settle for the latter if that is the only one to be had. In art, it isn't like that. You can't defend an ungainly novel by saying that you were dealing with ungainly ideas.

In taking the risk of getting it wrong, something we do every time we stake a claim to significant new knowledge, we are also implicitly seeking a response - of confirmation or denial. In this, both art and science are intrinsically dialogic. They need a response, which is to say they need an audience. This is why it is uncommon and eccentric to make art works (or mathematical proofs) only for one's own private delight. For though an artist is always audience to their own work, art works are made - insofar as they are seeking to express or represent something - in media which are publicly accessible and to which public response is always legitimate even if not sought or invited. I can make up tunes in my head for my own private delight; I only become a composer when I make up tunes for other people to listen to. One could say, art works are demonstrative - they show. But showing is always in principle and potentially showing someone.

And this is a risky business. Though we sometimes speak of an art work, like an argument, as 'compelling', it is of the nature of the dialogism of art that it leaves its audience free. An artist cannot control a response, much as he or she would sometimes like to. Undoubtedly, the use of programme notes, pre- or post-show talks and so on may lapse into an attempt at control rather than be an aid to understanding work which may not be transparent even to honest and informed attention. By such lapses, an artist may try to turn their own work into a message, and offer to read it for an audience. The trouble of making the work then scarcely seems worthwhile.

For there is no point is using a medium other than the most practical for the purpose in hand if you have only practical purposes. If you need a mug shot, then use a camera, not pen and ink. If you need a political position, articulated and defended, then use prose, not poetry. I want to say that the specific virtue of every medium when handled artistically is that it is useless as a means of communication.

1995? Not previously published