Perambulating the Bounds

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Why we care about what art says

In this week’s Scene I did a profile and review of Erika Johnson’s show at the Plowhaus gallery ( One set of comments didn’t make it into the final version, but the point of having a blog is that you have a place to park that sort of thing.

The main piece in her exhibit is an installation of several rows of transparencies of plants, text pages, architectural details, antique photos of women and contemporary photos of women in gay pride marches. The accumulation of images makes a portrait of lesbian identity within history and society, but does so in an indirect, non-linear and open-ended way. Viewers can choose their own path through the images, make their own connections, find their own keystones. The old pictures remind you there always were women who loved other women, but they looked like everyone else and blended in. Now they join together to announce themselves in the streets. Or those old pictures might make you wonder who in your family was gay, or went through their whole life forcing themselves to conform to overwhelming social conventions. The possible combinations and connections are vast.

Johnson’s piece is a good example of the significance of art as a form of discourse and inquiry. The same need to recapture a suppressed narrative of gay identity and history that motivates her art applies to scholarly fields as well. Her work, and the imperative for narrative, reminded me of the importance of a book like historian George Chauncey’s great book Gay New York. As an historian, Chauncey has collected facts exhaustively and pieced together an account of events and society that follows the necessarily linear structure of history presented in book form. The aspiration for this, as for any scholarly work, is that people will find the narrative compelling and authoritative, and that it will putt to rest certain questions and explode myths.

At first blush, it might seem that the historian’s discourse is more valuable than the kind of narrative an artist can create. History tries to put things straight, to clarify. Art brings ambiguity along with it at every turn. E.H. Gombrich pointed out that art blurs the distinction between falsehood and truth, reality and appearance, and creates “a twilight realm which is neither one nor the other.” But he goes on to argue that “it is precisely the acknowledgment of such a twilight realm, of ‘dreams for those who are awake,’ which may constitute the decisive discovery of the Greek mind.”

Once you acknowledge the twilight realm of experience, it suggests that narratives also need expression in this realm where a different kind of truth about experience can be found by mixing history and myth. Art is not a poor substitute for history, or science, or economics, or any other discipline. It is uniquely capable of certain kinds of treatment of experience, and its narratives will speak in ways that other media cannot. Charles Olson would have called it mythopoesis. The capacity of art to create narrative and discourse and to make meaningful use of myth puts a burden on artists to take the intellectual content of their work seriously.


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