Jan Svenungsson

Shields, Andrew. "Abstract Reception", in: zingmagazine, fall 1998

For me, Jan Svenungsson's work is "abstract" in the etymological sense: it has been withdrawn from me (Latin abstractus, from abstrahere, to withdraw, to draw away). When I suggested to Jan that I write something about his work, he immediately forbade me to look at any of his works until I had done so. This would be an interesting project: the obstacles faced by a writer discussing an artist's work from memory are worth addressing. However, I have never seen Jan's work (nor met him in person); I have only read texts about it (some of which I translated from German into English).

To "translate" is "to carry across": when I translate for Jan, I carry his words (or, usually, the words of others about his work) across the semantic barrier between German and English. To write about a visual artist's work is also a form of "carrying across": the writer "translates" the work from its original medium into the medium of language. Like me, the reader of such writings is at one remove from the work itself; thus, this essay is at a double remove from that work. If writing about painting is a translation, my writing here is a translation of a translation. In fact, Jan even calls his work a "translation" (though he does not say of what), so perhaps another iteration is necessary: this is a translation of a translation of a translation.

My distance from these works, their "abstraction" for me, might make it seem inappropriate for me to discuss them -- except that such iterations are fundamental to Jan's work. But, beyond that, the reading (if not usually the writing) of analyses of works the reader has not ever seen or heard or read is not only an everyday experience (we read reviews of films and books and concerts and exhibitions and plays in the newspaper), such reception "at a distance" is also important in the development of "taste." Here, this old-fashioned word should not suggest that there is a single sense of "taste" to develop, or that we should discuss whether someone has (or something is in) good or bad taste. Rather, "taste" is simply one's ability to think about and discriminate between works of art. In this sense, "abstract" reception of art develops taste.

There is a very practical sense in which this is true. The reading of reviews of works of art (of whatever kind) helps us decide which works to engage with in the first place. This does not necessarily mean that we simply follow the opinion of the critic we are reading. Louis Menand has recently argued that a good critic "is someone who doesn't know what he or she thinks before the experience [of a work of art] but who has an idea about it afterward, and is able to explain that idea to someone else." While well put, this is not entirely accurate. Good critics are not just those who can convince us of the validity of their articulation of their experience of a work; rather, a good critic's work allows us to judge the work's value for ourselves -- independently (at least to some degree) of the critic's own judgment of its value. Our first discrimination is often not between works of art, or of the value of a given work of art, but between reviews of works of art; then we experience some of the works, and by thinking about them and the reviews we had read, we develop our own "taste" -- at the expense of those works we have judged as being of no interest to us. They remain an abstract, "withdrawn" background against which our reception of art takes place. (Obviously, we might miss something good this way. But we also certainly miss many things which are bad.)

Perhaps if we were immortal, we would be able to dispense with reviews. Then we would (at least theoretically) have time to engage with all the art works humans produce. Then, the background of our judgments of taste could in principle always be based on direct experience. (This would probably mean we would have to experience many more bad works of art, but that's another issue entirely.)

However, this makes abstract reception sound too incidental; reception at a distance is actually a necessary part of taste. Taste is not an individual matter; the idea that "there's no arguing about taste" is backwards: there is only arguing about taste. In fact, tastes are the communal result of argument: our "individual" tastes only develop within a context of differing tastes in which each of us confronts others with our response to works. Those who do it well become critics (here, Menand's description of a good critic is useful), but, as the saying goes, "everyone's a critic." The responses of others, whether professional critics or not, to works we have not ourselves are the background against which we think about and respond to a new work of art. If our mortality is a practical reason for abstract reception, the social context without which we cannot concretely experience art works makes such reception a theoretical necessity.

This abstract background has two other components as well. In graduate school, my friends and I called the first "bull crit": critical discussion of works one knew only second-hand. For example, I had not yet read two of the "greatest novels ever written," Madame Bovary and Ulysses. However, from my reading in literary criticism, I knew a great deal about these two books -- not even from reading essays focused on them, but from the use of scenes and quotations from them in discussions of other works (by other authors) or of general theoretical issues. Hence, one need not have read Flaubert or Joyce to know a great deal about the content and reception of their works. In fact, when I saw Claude Berri's film of Madame Bovary (before I finally read the book), not a single scene in the film was new to me: the film seemed to include only the canonically "important" scenes which were discussed everywhere; it left out what nobody talks about. (As a friend said, it is a wonderful film for French high-school students who want to get out of reading the book but need to know about it to pass tests.)

A further component of one's abstract background is not knowledge of works one doesn't know, but memory of works one has experienced. If I had experienced Jan's works in person, he could have put me in such a situation by then saying I should not look at them while writing about them. But aren't we usually in such a situation? After all, while experiencing a work, we remember others, as well as analyses we have read, works and analyses which, in the moment of our reception of the new work, are abstract to us, "withdrawn." It is this background, a teacher of mine (James Longenbach) once argued, which works full of allusions make us aware of. I had complained that reading Ezra Pound's Cantos had given me a backache: I was always carrying around not one book (the poem itself) but three books (the poem and the two-volume Companion to the Cantos, which explains many of Pound's often very obscure allusions). As Jim pointed out, this merely literalizes what is always the case, even when we are responding to works without allusions: we respond to works through a mental library or museum of works we remember (or whose criticism we remember). This abstract background of unknown, semi-known, and well-known works is not an unfortunate detail of our reception of art works in all their forms; rather, it is a necessity for our understanding art at all -- and it means less strain for our backs.

What is written and said about art, then, makes our reception of work previously unfamiliar to us possible by providing a frame for understanding that work. Obviously, the frame each of us has for experiencing art can (and will) create distortions in our reception of particular works. Misleading critical descriptions, the compounding of those errors in our own "bull crit," and the vagaries of memory can all lead reception astray (although that makes it sound like there is a "correct" receptive path to follow, which there is not). This brings me back to Jan Svenungsson. Each critical discussion of Jan's work which I have read creates a different set of small distortions; the cumulative effect of such distortions, I would hope, is to cancel out the errors and produce a relatively clear picture of the works I have never seen.

Of course, errors can also accumulate, leading one farther and farther from the original. One of Jan's works involves copying an outline of a map of Scandinavia, then copying the copy, and so on. In the two series of such copies, he uses two different methods, one emphasizing detail, the other not. The two series diverge radically from each other, as well as from the original. Here, error accumulates. However, my reception of Jan's work is not entirely analogous to this process: I am looking, in a sense, at a large set of first copies, each of which emphasizes different features of the work (think of the joke about the blind men describing an elephant). Someone reading this essay might be more concerned about the effects of cumulative error.

However, such a concern is unnecessary, not because I am so sure that I am reading the critiques of Jan's works carefully, allowing me, as it were, to perceive the whole elephant by hearing about its different parts, but because works have a certain control even over discussions which are only about criticisms of the works. The "original" has a certain power over the "copies." One might recall the German discussion of the 1990 publication of Christa Wolf's story Was bleibt. This story attracted ferocious criticism from those who felt that Wolf was trying to glorify herself as a dissident, a role she had, according to them, never taken up, being, they said, too willing to compromise with the East German regime. The controversy went so far that a number of writers on both sides began to say things like "Es geht nicht um Christa Wolf" -- "It has nothing to do with Christa Wolf." What was striking about these articles was how much they did have to do with Wolf's story: even when no discussion of the story took place at all, the points that were made always seemed to have been anticipated by the agonized interior dialogues of Wolf's narrator. The work controlled even the reception at a distance which claimed that it was no longer even discussing the work, but only its reception and the reception of that reception.

Such a play of error, iteration, and control lies at the heart of Jan's works. His most frequently discussed work is a series of paintings called "Test": for them, he first made splashes of red watercolor paint; then, he painstakingly copied those splashes in oil paintings. Unlike the iteration of copying the outline of Scandinavia, this system does have parallels with my position writing this essay (and hence with abstract reception as such). Those viewing the final paintings have no access to the original splashes, even if they do know that those watercolors exist; similarly, I have access only to the critical texts about Jan's work, though I know that the works really exist (or, as so much has been written about them, and as I have been paid to translate texts about them, I assume they do!)

In any case, the framed paintings in "Test" look like fresh bloodstains, or at least like oil copies of them. Like many of Jan's works, they are the end result of his creation of a system to work with, a system he follows meticulously until the work is finished. Why does he find such systems interesting? "When a system works, it provides a sense of control and security." Applying this comment to "Test," one might conclude that the system of copying bloodstains acts to take the threat out of blood; images which remind us of our mortality are brought under control through the act of painting. Nature morte becomes still life.

If the idea of a threat seems exaggerated, it is worth noting that the critics discussing "Test" all emphasize the immediate and startling effect of seeing these carefully framed and carefully hung images of blood. They trigger an immediate, visceral response. My discussion of the necessity of abstract reception has until now ignored the importance of such an immediate response to a work (im-mediate, unmediated; hence also without the mediation of criticism). In fact, I often try to produce such a response in myself: for example, by going to see movies without having read reviews of them, even going so far as to tell friends to stop talking about movies they have seen which I have not. This does not, however, make my response to a particular film truly unmediated: the memory of other works is still important to my response, as is the set of ideas I have about what I like and don't like in films -- ideas which each new film may or may not change. In the case of "Test," the immediate response to Jan's images of blood is itself mediated: blood is not a neutral image. The shock may be "immediate" in the sense that it takes place at once, but it is still mediated by existing meanings of blood which precede and determine that response.

The critical response to "Test" always goes further than this initial shock effect. Repeatedly, the critics emphasize the difference between the instant of a bloodstain and the duration represented by an oil painting -- it is clear when looking at the paintings that they are not Pollockian splashes, but the product of numerous small brush strokes. The replacement of the moment of the bloodstain by the temporal extension of the old-fashioned oil painting is then doubled by the replacement of the moment of shock by the time of the critics' considerations of that moment.

Again and again, the critics explain this replacement of the moment as a matter of control. To one critic, Jan's systems are a means of "capturing the chance occurrence"; for another, "the arbitrary nature of the structure" is "a protection against meaninglessness"; to a third, his work involves "the neutralization of the motif through duplication." In each case, labor of the critic recapitulates Jan's labor (notice how the work controls the criticism): a visceral, threatening moment is brought under control by an elaborate framing process. Both "Test" and its critics neutralize the threat represented by blood. A process of withdrawal from the threat of the motif takes place. Like abstract reception, it would seem, this work is a counter to our mortality.

But the blood is not blood: it is oil. And it never was blood: the "original" splashes Jan copied were of blood-colored watercolor paint, and not of real blood. What "Test" elaborately frames and neutralizes is something, finally, which is not at all threatening. Does this mean that "Test" is just a game with paint? That would not capture what is going on here. By framing something non-threatening, "Test" displaces attention from a given threat to the ways in which we control threats by framing them. As with Pound's Cantos, the work thus highlights a fundamental part of the experience of art: with the Cantos, the role other works play when we respond to one work; with "Test," the framing, control, and neutralization of threatening material through artistic representation. In "Test," the elaborate controlling not of the uncontrollable but of what needs no control both underlines the non-immediacy of the visceral response and undermines the efficacy of all systems of "control and security" -- whether his own systems for "neutralizing" motifs or our systems of "abstract reception". As a result, both immediacy and mediation, both the visceral response and abstract reception, rather than "withdrawing" from us as abstract concepts, become concrete: they "grow together" (Latin concretus, from concrescere, to grow together, harden).

Andrew Shields