My main project right now is to finish up my translation of Agamben’s book on Pinocchio. Though part of me wonders why I took on a translation during the busiest year of my life, it has been fun in a lot of ways — above all, by introducing me to the original novel by Collodi, which is significantly different and much better than the Disney film. When I first agreed to do the translation, I bought two different translations, intending to “triangulate” between them and Agamben’s commentary, and My Esteemed Partner decided to read it alongside me. One afternoon, she ran into the office and, nearly in tears from laughter, exclaimed: “He killed him! He threw something at the Talking Cricket and killed him!” And that’s only the first big twist in a book full of true WTF moments.
Thinking back to some of the artworks I saw in Spain, I drew a comparison to Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights. Both have a kind of “fractal” weirdness — the closer you look, the more weird shit there is. Both at once invite some attempt to decipher meaning or symbolism, but both equally repel it. When we were at the Prado, My Esteemed Partner and I both reflected that we were initially interested in the tour guide’s explanations of Bosch’s symbols, but soon felt we had to tune it out. There’s something more going on, and something less. Similarly, I share Agamben’s disdain for the overconfident, reductive interpretations of previous commentators on Pinocchio. I’m not sure what to think of his own “positive” interpretation, but I find his commentary most convincing when it is simply pointing out that the text is consistently weirder than any theory can account for.
That is something that the hegemonic version of “contemporary art” has lost, at least for me — those “wow, WTF” moments. We also visted the museum of contemporary art in Barcelona, and it left me cold. I could grasp what they were trying to say and why they thought this particular juxtaposition or accrual of materials somehow indicated that meaning (or problem or question or tension or whatever), but the art object as such just never seemed to have that intrinsic fascination. This is where the displacement of easel painting has been a real loss in my view, especially the decline of representational painting. There is something about a great painting that simply commands attention in the way that a room full of cut-up pieces of picture frames nailed to the floor (for example) never will. Contemporary art is great at being a meta-commentary on art, but not as great at being art. In my mind, the truly unforgettable works — like Las Meninas — always do the former without ever forgetting that they also need to do the latter.
Idle, slightly curmudgeonly thoughts from someone who has developed a real passion for art through the patient work of figuring out how to get students talking about art.