Day One

January 19, 2008

I have been thinking a lot about Christina’s question about the ‘object of art’ – or, for our purposes, the ‘object’ of visual rhetoric. Or, for RCID purposes, the objectS of visual rhetoricS. I mentioned in class after we viewed some of Peter Rose’s work that the object of art might actually be external to it: i.e. the viewer or perceiver of the work.

Here’s where I’m coming from with that notion (unfortunately, it did not originate with me). In chapter 2 of Richard A. Lanham’s book The Economics of Attention: Style and Substance in the Age of Information, Andy Warhol is drawn as an “attention artist.” As such, Lanham posits Warhol’s art has no meaning outside of itself except that which is supplied by viewers and critics. Warhol apparently never denied this: “the surface, he said, was all there was” (49). In fact, Warhol had many responses to his art as well as his eccentric public persona, all of which were different and often contradictory. Lanham’s take? “More gist for the attention mill [pundits, critics]. That’s how an attention artist works” (50).

Duchamp is characterized similarly.

Intuitively, I figured Lanham might be on to something with this thesis. I especially liked his straightforward methodology: juxtaposition of Warhol’s and Duchamp’s “art for art’s sake” personal messages against the high register theorizing and philosophizing of the art by critics, historians, or other groups who have a stake in positing MEANING behind The Fountain or the Campbell’s Soup cans. Lanham offers snippets of interpretations forwarded regarding the soup can, but his rendering makes this grasping for meaning seem trite and un-self-conscious. Here’s an example, “The soup cans represented the detritus of consumer capitalism, its vacuous tastelessness, etc. Or the tastelessness of modern mass-produced foods…Or, since the paintings were all the same, they represented the sterility of mass production. Or they allegorized the bankruptcy of the masterpiece tradition in Western art, a tradition based on skill of hand and beauty of form. Or, quite to the contrary, because formal decisions were required to transform the soup can labels into canvas, they represented an exquisite case of ever-so-slight formal transformations that elicited the beauty implicit in the Campbell’s label” (49-50).

These formulations become laughable when we read what Andy himself had to say: “I was raised on Campbell’s soup. I had it for lunch every day. I love it.” Or, if asked on a different day, Lanham notes, “he could shrug and say there wasn’t any meaning” (50). Through juxtaposition of academic interpretations and commentary from the artist himself, Lanham builds his case for Warhol as an attention artist, one whose fame could not have been realized if the object of his art was not (interpretations of) the viewer.

I read (speaking of intertextuality) Helmers and Hill’s commentary on Firefighers at Ground Zero with Lanham in mind. The authors of the Intro to Defining Visual Rhetorics don their interpretive hats with gusto as they dissect the photograph. “The simple composition of the image is both essential and nonessential to the meaning,” they begin. “The fact that there are three figures…inscribe[s] the Trinity over the rubble of the Trade Center [and] offers a corrective to the ‘Islamic fundamentalism’ of the ad hoc pilots of the aircraft that blasted into the buildings in the morning…The colors of the flag have symbolic meaning: red for valor, white for innocence, and blue for justice…In being designated a national symbol, the flag is synecdochic” (7), etc. etc.

Now here’s what Tom Franklin had to say about the image: it “‘just happened'” (7).

America (the viewers of the image) called for an iconic representation of American resilience post-9/11 and they got it. To me, this illustrates a bottom-up process of determining the meaning and value of art–its object.

But I don’t want to go so far as to say the the object of visual rhetoric is the viewer. I’ll keep my argument limited to post-modern art, and save the rest for later.


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