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From Nothing to Art and Thinking

By Gabrielle Kezia

The chorus of my everyday has largely been going to my lectures and seminars, and the library to do my readings. Work seizes my weekends. It seems simple enough to shoulder, but my mind runs hot. It’s filled to the brim with worries about essays I haven’t written, readings I haven’t read, texts I haven’t answered, and not catching the bus or tube on time. (With the nights no longer holding heat, and morning light hardly cutting through the sky, at least I have this stew of to-do lists to keep me warm and electricity costs low.) But it was becoming clear to me, slowly, after reading writer and filmmaker Susan Sontag’s The Aesthetics of Silence that what I really need is to do nothing. “The notions of silence, emptiness, reduction, sketch out new prescriptions for looking, hearing, etc.—specifically, either for having a more immediate, sensuous experience of art or for confronting the art work in a more conscious, conceptual way.” Confounding, but I paced forward.

Sontag was influenced by writer Paul Goodman who claims in his Speaking and Language that silence is fertile and pastures on the soul. A brain-teaser, I thought initially. (Silence is not a language I’m unfamiliar with; my reticence is a pretty defining characteristic. Even so, it’s hard to dig on the idea that one can reap what is not sown.) This ambivalence is palliated by poet and essayist Anne Carson’s Stillness in which she ingeniously notes the silences between two thoughts that give form to stillness—the kind embodied by Helen of Troy in Agamemnon, or carried by the semi-colon in writer Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts then enacted through its ability to situate the practice of being still onto the experience of reading by virtue of instigating a momentary pause. This feels pleasantly crisp to me. Stillness is not rested, rather it wanders about the terrain of the mind. “Silence noticed is stillness.” And it necessitates an act of noticing, or an act of awareness.

At this point, it’s hard not to think of the idea of attention brought forth by philosopher Simone Weil in her Waiting for God; herein lies a sort of awareness of the ‘other’ that relinquishes the self that is preoccupied so as to receive the ‘other’ in complete consciousness. Attention, therefore, entails the suspension of desires, the turning away from the self that obstructs and toward the other, leaving the subject “detached, empty, and ready to be penetrated by the object.” I understand ‘attention’ here to something like not to seek, and instead to stick around in a conscious place where I am receptive and fully ripened to reap a sophisticated yet abstruse form of knowing, a knowing that which flows from leaning into the void and being still. This shapes, I think, not only in the experience of the subject but also the possibilities of experiences for the subject.

In the case of art stillness is embodied in relation to what Sontag later calls “the iconography of consciousness.” (This is an interesting phrase to me; it glosses on art taking over the role that religion used to play.) Sontag thinks it a critical act of misconduct to interpret art; she argues against the intellectual importance of looking and experiencing art sensuously, handling a work of art as if it were a mine for meaning. The experience of art is art itself. Interpretation diminishes the appreciation of its “thingness.” What came to mind was my last essay for this publication, in which I asserted that my appeal to works of art is the emotional connection that arises from the sensations it induces. But finding a solution to this turned out to be an uncomplicated effort; in Against Interpretation, Sontag states, quite simply, to “reveal the sensuous surface of art without mucking about in it.” She tells the art historian to take heed in stillness and draw attention to the work of art itself, what it has to offer—whether through form, materiality, or meaning—and not merely on the meaning-discourse that surrounds it.

I treated this essay as a testing ground to think about thinking; what I was thinking when I’m not thinking about university and work. On the bus, the tube, or while waiting for the red light, and sometimes, admittedly, while walking and crossing the street, I was jotting down words, phrases and half-baked thoughts and ideas in my Notes app about the thing I long for the most: silence. But the subject was bigger than me. I knew nothing, while many did. (Now knowing what I know, I should probably stop using ‘I’ when writing but it’s kind of fun to just pester people with my thoughts.) Earlier I said attending to stillness can also shape the possibilities of experiences for the subject. A rather fresh undertaking came from art historian Hanneke Grootenboer and what she terms “the pensive images” in her eponymous book, which are works of art that have the capacity to arouse the intellect, not in meaning, narrative nor critique, but in thought. This doesn’t seem like too far a reach, especially in the field of Art History where descriptions of art often involve its personification.

An example of this concept, I think, is Andrew Wyeth’s Squall (1986). His painting is ‘pensive’ because it reworks our thinking according to it. Thought genially traverses, within and through the pensive image. Its punctum—the binoculars and the yellow raincoat that coated its proprietor and is now dangling off the rack—stops our tracks before we “add” to Wyeth’s painting only by our gaze; once locked, it sings out a line of thinking. (See Roland Barthes' punctum in Camera Lucida.) It’s represented not only through form and materiality, but through the stillness of the image that yields an “uneasy and indeterminate state of openness that allows for the unthought to surface.”

It seems quite appropriate to me to now linger on what philosopher Jean Baudrillard said in his Impossible Exchange: “The Nothing does not cease to exist as soon as there is something. The Nothing continues (not) to exist just beneath the surface of things.”

Andrew Wyeth, Squall, 1986. Tempera on panel. HIC,

It’s a curious thing: the emptiness of the room defined by the open door is paradoxically the object of the painting. It bears a tricky kind of stillness, a stillness that, I suppose, Carson maintains; borrowing from Grootenboer, there is a merging of two kinds of temporality when the drafty room that represents the hurried departure of the woman meets the current of air left in a state of suspension. What sits beyond the figure is the thought that marks the experience of Wyeth’s painting. The pensive image, much like Wyeth’s foyer, is a reception area whereby the gaze and punctum meet to lead the arrested mind to the not-yet thought, to wonder. The potency of receiving the thought, of being touched by the artwork, is predicated on attention to the other. With it we become cordial with the image whose pensiveness is harnessed by the artist’s attention and technique. We settle in its terms, regardless of indeterminacy.

This is not an excuse to say that nothing matters. But Nothing matters—the void gives way to being still which in turn enhances one’s vigilance to Other. It has a boomerang effect—tossed in the air by the thrower, flying its own course and returning to the subject in understanding, or in thinking as in some experiences with art. The real task is to catch it. What relief to uncover that vast realms of knowing can be populated without breaking a sweat. The search for meaning, be damned.


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