Vīta brevis, ars longa, occāsiō praeceps, experīmentum perīculōsum, iūdicium difficile.
Life is short, and art long, opportunity fleeting, experimentations perilous, and judgment difficult.
As always let’s start with the translation of the title Deadlock. Resistance, loss, lethargy in art. It’s a rough one, but I think reflects the gist of the meaning. It’s one of the books I got from my mum in the Easter parcel and as I am progressing with the 20 Books of Summer challenge I decided to try and read every other book in Polish.
As you can see it is a book about art. Maria Poprzęcka is one of the most renowned Polish art historians, and I’ve been reading some of her texts during my studies (which now that I think of it was ages ago). In her foreword, she mentions that the history of art is a history of successes, even if the recognition comes after death it does eventually come. Or so we think. She wanted to explore the other side a bit more, the difficult, rejected, painful, and questioning. Her starting point is the sentence by Hippocrates that you can see at the top of this post (I skipped the Greek version).
In the chapter devoted to ‘ars longa’, she starts with Kazimir Malevich and his famous Black Square. How it aimed at transcending the medium, only to be inescapably tied to it (the materials were so poor the condition of the painting deteriorated quickly and it required an intervention). How it was hidden from view for years by the Soviet government and how this didn’t decrease it’s impact, making it one of the pop-culture icons. She then explores the spatial and meaning relation of the front and back of the canvass (sometimes consciously used by the artists), using the exhibition of the works of Andrzej Wróblewski Recto/Verso. Only to move on to the time dimension and significance of repainting of more drastic interventions into one’s own creations by Jacek Sempoliński. The art lasts, but it is in a constant fight with the medium, physicality, and time.
‘Vita brevis’ focuses on the materials as fragile as snow. On art that is on purpose created to vanish. Or art that was created to last, but the materials succumb to time. Logically we then have to consider the relation of the reconstruction to the original. And what does it even mean that something is original? How many times can you restore a painting before it is changed? Should we try to reconstruct the lost pieces? Should we focus on the artist’s gesture and intention of the physical object? Is art about the act of creation or about its outcome?
In the ‘occāsiō praeceps’ part, we are asked to look at the tension between agreement and disagreement to the passing of time. The tension that forms the axis of many works of art. When art tries to save things from being forgotten and loses time after time. Poprzęcka then moves on to a sense of failure resulting from it and how it can prevent some from even creating at all. She refers to many essays written about or inspired by Bartleby, the Scrivener by Herman Melville. The topos of ‘I’d rather not’, of literary paralysis, or an artist actually refusing to do art. She analyzes various reasons for not creating, from perfectionism to lack of faith in one’s talent. What is interesting here is the difference between literature and visual arts. Writers more often refuse to create, there aren’t many artists who refused to create visual art.
The ‘experīmentum perīculōsum’ part is about all the gross things in art. About abject art, exploring the line between the sacrum and profanum. About causing disgust to push people out of their comfort zone, to shake them. But there is also another exploration aspect here: how we are drawn to the disgusting, how we cannot turn our eyes. This irrefutable need to seeing suffering and ugliness. From that point, Poprzęcka proceeds to understand people attacking art and their motives. She notes that they are typically classified as mad, but really this may hide a variety of other reasons that we refuse to understand. What really is a normal reaction to art? Where is the line? If the art aims at enraging me is it not normal to be enraged?
‘Iūdicium difficile’ focuses on the tension between art and art history. The clashes regarding who has the right to pass on a judgment. In that part, she refers to two books Krivoklat by Jacek Dehnel and The End of Art by Donald Kuspit. She lists the 31 arguments on the end of art, but then comes back to the platonic ideal. Art.
It’s been a while since I read an academic text devoted to art. And this is an easy flowing one, but what I forgot is how dense the content is in academic prose. There is hundreds of ideas touched upon in the text, they seamlessly flow from one to another following a logical chain of thought. What I wrote above is a rough estimation of what is really covered and pondered on in this book. The book is also well illustrated, not too much, not to draw the attention from the text, but in the exactly right places, where we really need the visual to supplement the thought. One of the not many books about art where I didn’t end up spending half of my time googling instead of reading. It certainly reminded me why I loved studying the history of arts.