What Painting Is

I’ve been reading James Elkins’ (yes him again) What Painting Is. The book is about painting as the act of doing things with paint: the work towards the Work, as it were. Not about Art or Representation, or even stories about painters: the book tackles the viscous, tactile, impossible task of making something sublime through actions with oil, water, stone, pigment. There aren’t, he argues, art-critical ways of talking about painting at this level, and the book draws broadly from the language and practice of alchemy to navigate its way around these unspeakable things.

Elkins’ face-to-the-canvas discussion of the physical techniques behind, say, Monet’s gestural marks, has me thinking again about what it is I find so tedious about the Novel, as a form. It’s something similar — for me writing is work with words: and there are too few novels, where through the surface of the landscape of narrative, the jackstone knuckles of the words themselves are still visible, pressing upwards against the light: Pynchon, Faulkner, a few others…

Of course, this is a personal thing. I suspect it connects to my affinity for naked media. For me, the encounter with the thing in its thingness is worth effort.

And art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects “unfamiliar”, to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.

Victor Shklovsky — Art As Technique

Shklovsky’s defamiliarisation refers to something within the work, but applies also to the conditions within which we encounter it. I like having music happen to me, unexpected, unanticipated, hence my idea for the Radio-Of-Me. If I could construct the listening experience to present music even more directly as it is, as sound rather than music, then better yet (but it is difficult). The more directly we contact the work in its elements, then the better (to me) to feel it anew in its true selfness, or to feel what the elements (words, gestures, timbres over time…) do, being in themselves what they are. Or maybe I’m just not good at gestalts.


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