It seems I have not written anything for close to 6 months. What is it to slip in to silence? Or to recline into silence? Or to find oneself all at once silent? It is to find myself here – considering the need to speak, but also the inevitability of silence (I am bound eventually to fall permanently silent).
My aim here is to try to convey some doubts about the necessity to say something – to produce something to be heard (or seen).
I think of the old philosophical conundrum, “If a tree falls in the forest and nobody hears it fall, does it make a sound?”. Similarly, if an artist (for want of a better word) produces something and it is never exhibited, does it exist as a piece of art?
The suggestion now is that it does not exist as art until it enters into social exchange. This is very much linked to the effort – at least within universities – to conceive artistic practice as a mode of research. Just as the researcher is obliged to publish the results of his or her research so the artist must produce work to be publicly exhibited. This is something like a moral duty. Thou shalt go forth and exhibit and only in exhibiting and in the assurance of public and peer reception shall your work properly exist as art and you yourself properly exist as an artist.
Of course this makes pragmatic sense. There has to be some means of assessing our productivity and our cultural standing. We cannot simply say we are artists – and we certainly can’t say nothing and be artists.
So we are compelled to be as productive as any other sector of the economy, to keep churning stuff out and offering it up for public consumption. No possibility of being intensely productive but, due to shyness or a complete lack of business acumen, choosing to leave our work in private journals or cupboards, completely out of the public eye. No matter that we may enjoy producing the work and even occasionally poring over it and sharing it with friends – none of that is in anyway sufficient. The rule is quite explicit – exhibit in a peer-reviewed public venue or cease to exist.
Yet does exhibiting guarantee that anything is indeed seen or heard? Does it actually ensure some moment of adequate public communication? Does it necessarily summon and reach an audience? No doubt in many instances, but none of this is assured. How often have I sat minding one of my own exhibitions in a 3rd class public venue to experience only the odd street person and drug addict wandering in to get out of the cold or use the toilet. No problem with street people or drug addicts, but they are scarcely dropping in to see my work.
So it seems to me that a great deal of exhibition is fairly empty. One runs through the formalities of having one’s work publicly acknowledged as art, but it is more for the benefit of establishing the pathetic bona fides of one’s own marginal artistic career than of genuinely obtaining a public.
My cynicism and romanticism run deeper. Why must art engage with wider social agendas of productivity? If it has any scope at all to project a space of freedom, however compromised, shouldn’t this be in terms of not being subject to any specific ontological, epistemological and ethical imperatives? Why can’t I produce art for whatever goddamn reason I like and without any sense of it producing a profit? Why can’t producing work be an inexplicable, mishapen imperative out of phase with the rest of the world? Not that it has to be out of phase – not that it has to adopt the shape of alienated loss – but why can’t it be this way? What if you are sick of the struggle to build professional peer esteem and just want to spend your time in a particular way – perhaps making some things?
What is wrong with the amateurism that doesn’t call for onlookers or acclamation, that is justifiable in and of itself as an activity that has meaning for the artist but possibly to nobody else (or just a few others)?
My father is 87 and has mild dementia. He has recently started producing small collages. He makes a few each day. He keeps them in a stack in his wardrobe. He took some of them out and showed them to me the other day. They are actually very good, but he has no wish to do anything more with them. He is happy making them and happy that I like them, but that’s it. Here is one (in the hope that this will reach friends (or strangers who become friends)).
In some ways wouldn’t this provide a model for a mode of art-making that is not about fashioning publics (and artistic careers), but instead about fostering a more general culture of practice, with only the most humble endeavours at showing? In this small, unrecognised manner, showing may actually project new social relations and genuine possibilities of reciprocal exchange.
There is perhaps a politics of silent, unexhibited art.