Leo Steinberg: Gymnosophist

Gymnosophy: the doctrine of a sect of philosophers who practiced nudity and asceticism and meditation.

Leo Steinberg is an acknowledged ‘genius,’ and his essay is widely regarded as a masterpiece. Perhaps the reason we don’t recognize it as such more immediately is because he makes brilliant insights see so familiar and easy – just like the his role model, the inventor of the literary genre we know today as the personal essay – Michel de Montaigne. Is it possible that we don’t recognize Steinberg’s essay to be great precisely because it is so well written, as if by a modern-day Montaigne or Mozart? It all looks so easy – until you try to do it yourself.

There are still a number of important issues you could discuss in “Contemporary Art and The Plight of Its Public”. Probably the most important thing I should point out to you is the title itself, which makes direct reference to Clement Greenberg’s “The Plight of Culture”. There is little doubt that Steinberg, though he choses not to mention Greenberg’s name, is entering into a direct conflict with him. It might be helpful to consider exactly what Steinberg’s gripe with Greenberg is. Clearly, there is a real difference in their styles of writing, in the vocabulary they use, the examples they give, and the way they address their respective audiences.

Leo Steinberg
(1920 – 2011)

But are the two writers completely at odds with one another? Or are there some areas of overlap and sympathy between the two? One might begin might by addressing their use of the word “plight”. How does the significance of that word shift as it is moved from one context to another, first presented as a condition which afflicts culture, and then later as one which afflicts the public? Is affliction even the best term to use in both or either of these two cases? What word might work better?

As for Steinberg himself, I want to concentrate here not so much on the feeling of depression which overcame him upon first seeing the works of Jasper Johns. That we covered fairly well in class. What we didn’t get an opportunity to discuss sufficiently, however, was the eventual (which is not to say final) reading which he was able to produce, as well as the fact that this new understanding of Johns’ work represent not only a “cure” for Steinberg’s depression but also a stimulus to seek further opportunities to feel the plight which this body of work first occasioned in him.

In particular, I want to discuss Johns’ employment (or at least Steinberg’s conjecture of it) of what in linguistics are know as “deictics”, “existential markers” or “linguistic shifters.” Deixis is the Greek term for pointing, specifically for pointing out a location in space or time, or within a relation. (This is why we refer to the first digit on the human hand, the pointer, as the index finger.) Steinberg, as you will recall from his essay, first sees Johns’ work simply in terms of its eschewing of all conventional means of realistic representation. (Johns only draws, or traces, two-dimensional forms. His paintings are uncompromisingly flat and offer no optical illusion of depth whatsoever. If he wants to add a third dimension, rather than employing painterly techniques of perspective, or cast light and shadow, he simply casts the object out of bronze.) Steinberg reports, however, that he was able gradually to perceive the significance of Johns’ images and objects by giving up the set of conventions which had up until that point dictated how he was to perceive them. Rather than asking the familiar question, what or who in history or the ‘real world’ Johns was attempting to represent; Steinberg instead began, through a leap of critical insight, to ask himself about the where and the when which Johns was attempting to invoke. Simple acts of presentation, or of presentification (of making primally present), had taken the place of an entire range of techniques and technologies of representation. At its most basic level, Johns’ work is more concerned with creating “heres” and “theres”, or “nows” and “thens”, than any particular contents within those places. And beyond this, Johns’ work functions not only to presentify these coordinate relations, but also to manipulate them in ways which alter (at first unconsciously, and therefore more vertiginously) our own sense of locatedness in the world.

Notice Steinberg’s breakthrough with regards to the human face. Instead of insisting that the faces which Johns casts, saws in half, and stuffs into boxes might represent any particular person, or even some figure we might recognize as a warm and living human presence; Steinberg comes to realize that the human face, as used by Johns, is nothing but a sign which indicates a location, which indexes “hereness”. Further, working within this same highly artificial systems of conventions (or, language), Johns selects targets, conventionally understood to indicate “thereness”, to operate as the complement to facialty. Taking these as givens, the gist of Johns’ art will to displace these coordinates, putting the “here” over there and bringing the “there” over here.

This might not seem like such a big deal, but I believe it is. By inverting the very markers in terms of which we determine our location within time and space, Johns strips us of the preconditions necessary for us to feel ourselves situated within a meaningful world; or, to put in contrarywise, he installs the conditions necessary for us to feel ourselves radically stripped of a world, to feel utterly alienated. How better to explain not simply Steinberg’s initial inability to make a determinate statement regarding the quality of Johns’ work, but more crucially his keen awareness that the work made him extremely uncomfortable. We can certainly understand this keen discomfort as simply a lack of intellectual ease. But I think it’s at least equally important to notice that Steinberg’s recollections also describe a sense of physical discomfort. Recall how he mentions that the look of the faces and other body parts made him feel nauseous. Steinberg attributes this nausea to the disgusting notions of human dismemberment and acts of cannabalism; perhaps he had the impression he was looking at delicacies at a barbaric feast. But in light of our previous discussion, the question arises: which came first, the thought or the feeling?

It’s possible to think that the thought of cannibalism could make someone nauseous. Still, people think about that all the time without getting repulsed – consider, for example, the experience of reading Montaigne’s delightful essay “Of Cannibals”. I think it’s far more powerful, or at least more instructive, to imagine Steinberg feeling himself to have been made nauseous by something, though he didn’t know what, and then searching for the cause of that sensation. At first he turns to the familiar theme of cannibalism, which seesm to offer a probable explanation for his feeling of discomfort. The problem, however, is that once a cause has been properly identified, it’s symptom should disappear – at least that’s what Freud tells us. Whereas, in Steinberg’s case, identifying the thought of cannibalism doesn’t make his feeling of discomfort disappear. Rather, the feeling lingers with him, long after he leaves the show. Apparently, the thought of cannibalism is not what caused Steinberg’s sense of nausea, but rather something else. And this leads us back to the idea of existential coordinates.

Again, by displacing these, Johns has taken away, or inverted, those external reference points by means of which we establish and maintain our balance, our bearing within the world. He throws his viewer into a state of vertigo, in which here and there, now and then, and also far and near and up and down, are radically reversed or suspend. In sense which is not simply metaphoric, Johns turns the world inside-out, or momentarily suspends its ordinary existence. The feeling he creates is one of radical involution. If that doesn’t explain Steinberg’s feeling of nausea, that his stomach is no longer content to be on his inside but wants violently to force itself up and out of his body, then I don’t know what does.

Now, this may all seem mere speculation on my part. And no doubt it is, since I’m thinking this stuff up right now as I type. But it’s a kind of speculation which allows to see art objects, or any objects for that matter, in terms of radical difference, as opposed to mere differences of style. As far as Johns’ work is concerned, the most radical shift we see in it, the shift which makes it genuinely different from what has preceded it, is not simply to turn away from representation, but just as crucially, the turn toward the body of the viewer. Because, having seen and considered Johns’ work from the perspective I adopted above, one is in a position to ask whether Johns’ true medium is paint or bronze, or in fact the body of his viewer – a possibility which would suggest Johns to be a continuation of that other great American painter, Thomas Eakins, himself a committed and controversial “gymnosophist”. And this would indeed be a revolution within art: what was once considered the object produced or manipulated by the artist’s tools (stone or canvas) has become something different (the viewer’s body); while what was once consider the end has become a mere means – the sculpture or canvas itself has become one of the artists tools, and instrument with which to work upon the human body.

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