By Josh Wagner
People are abstract like art is abstract. Representational, paraphrasable, inaccurate and unable to be made perfectly mimetic. A failure. I recently went to The Anderson Collection to stare at Philip Guston’s characterization of a disembodied overcoat, “The Coat II.” Depicting a floating overcoat flanked by empty, black shoes and a flowing river of what can only be blood, the piece serves as a ghastly self-portrait of the artist as guilty, as not being able to offer up more than fictionalized representations of a falsified reality. In short, sitting alone on the second floor of the Anderson, it’s sad. But, while I can recall this depressed mood with a compressed word like ‘sad,’ it requires a whole lot more language to convey that meaning to other people. Even now, I’m not really sure what I mean by sad.
Is sadness a physical quality of the painting, a paraphrase of the work’s muted color scheme? Or, am I using sadness as a way to describe my reaction to the work, independent from any intrinsic qualities of the canvas? Can I categorize Guston’s ‘sad’ painting with other sad paintings — Picasso’s Guernica or Manet’s Olympia?
Yet, this quality of sadness is also specific — associations with dark overtones, insipid fog, anguish all come to mind. Other, more specific words, “bright,” “grey” or “pure,” are equally associative and straightforward. It seems as if there is an impossibility of exactitude in describing the visual. Each selected word evokes a certain metaphorical quality that leaves an imprint in the mind, yet is simultaneously unclear.
My process of putting words to canvas is the very same artistic process of creation, of giving form to bodiless ideas. In attempting to convey Guston’s visual canvas linguistically, I’m facing the same challenges and ultimate failure as the artist. The visual representation of the painting is an insufficient rendering of Guston’s unconscious vision, just as my ‘sad’ description is a poor substitute for encountering the painting in real time. The ‘real’ “The Coat II” exists somewhere in Guston’s mind, inexpressible and inconvertible into a consumable medium. Likewise, my experience of Guston’s coat is located somewhere in between the physical canvas, my linguistic descriptions and the shared mental space between myself and Guston.
Though primarily a failure, this conception of art does shed light on the process of crafting and on the need for symbology. On a guttural level, the conceit of art is that a few splashes of paint on a canvas, delivered by a few slaps of the wrist, can approximate recognizable forms. In its most extreme form — iconography — there is a determined canon of set icons which stand in for a greater whole, releasing a series of salient, yet overdetermined associations. Religious icons such as Herkules’ Nemean lion skin, Buddhist mudras or Jesus’ pretzel are easily artistically encapsulated on museum vases and serve as identifying criteria. The viewer is simultaneously aware that the depicted icon is not the thing it purports to be, yet knows what it is supposed to stand in for.
For Guston, the coat may be easily recognizable as a coat, but no one imagines it literally as a wearable coat that can be taken off the wall and worn in the rain. The coat, the best of realist art, is only ever a representation, a paraphrase of the sensible world and, more crucially, of the meaning of that sensible world.
On a deeper level, what distinguishes icons from the ordinary practice of art is their symbolic resonance. Once you recognize the pretzel as Jesus, not only are you able to identify a religious narrative in what appears to be a secular painting, but also to associate the depiction with the Jesus’ theological message, place him in a historical time period, compare it to other depictions of religious figures and so on. Such fabricated icons work on both a literal and metaphorical level, taking memorable aspects of a character and accentuating them. A pretzel that is recognizable as a pretzel is never just a pretzel.
Through icons, it is possible to take something ‘as’ something else, a process we embark on every day. The pretzel loses its importance if it is not meaningfully present to the observer, if she just doesn’t recognize it for what it is or possess the requisite theological knowledge. To create meaning by taking a paraphrase to stand in for the thing itself is to interpret a representation (paint on a canvas) as something that it is literally not and can never be (a deity). To do this is to discriminate one meaning from all possible meanings, to take a stand and interpret a thing as Something. To identify one meaning among all possible meanings is to express what you think the current, most immediate being of that thing is in the present. This process requires a kind of abstract futurity, a way of thinking through all conceivable meanings, traversing the temporal space between form and content, and selecting the most personally resonant. In this sense, Guston’s coat stands in for faceless, nameless and often headless ghosts of the Second World War.
While this form of paraphrase permeates visual art and art history, it also resonates with the meanings of our friends and families, all social relationships; life is art, after all. It’s really easy to treat strangers as epigrammatic icons — discernible by one or two memorable character traits, a story they tell, a physical characteristic. Especially at Stanford, where we are constantly in the process of meeting new people in our dorms, in our classes, in line at Coupa. It is impossible to avoid this kind of iconography — it’s a way of managing the information in our heads.
When you meet someone for the first time, they’re the most real to you because it’s the first interaction; it’s easy to pay attention because everything you’re learning about them is brand-new information. The visage they present, while a fictionalization of who they truly are, reflects a hidden totality that advertises its hiddenness. In these original moments, you are able recognize their humanity behind their physical form, recognize the unknown life they live and perhaps how little you know about them. Yet, after that initial contact, their reality (this unknowable mask, a collection of ever-changing internal interactions) begins to recede (especially if they go abroad). Left with only minimal interactions, you forget what it feels like to be around them, the sound of their voice, the slight pause they make before speaking; though not forgotten, in essence, they begin to disintegrate into obscurity.
Yet, at the same time, you’re still inhabiting the same space as them, seeing them around campus and waiting in the same lines. You say ‘hi’ in the hallways, ask them about their thesis, limiting all interactions to 40 seconds at most. Their meaning becomes reduced from a totality to a few memorable features learned in that initial interaction; they slowly become less real because you’re not engaging with them as a person, rather with the parts of them that stay with you.
What does it mean to be surrounded by unreal people? This forced (though welcome!) contact is part of what it means to live in such a small space as Stanford. This symbolic sorting of people and place is a neural means of dealing with information overload, and while it does make it difficult to ‘know’ another, it isn’t necessarily a negative thing. Situational friendships are real friendships, even if based and continued on an arbitrary basis. But, most crucially, this symbolic reduction of a person to their base humanity allows you to enter into your own mind, to construct yourself as you see fit, to become the person who you already are — not focusing on another gives you the space to be yourself.
The longer you know someone in this superficial way, the less real they become and the more metaphoric their epithet becomes. In the same way that hanging pretzel can stand in for Jesus, a detail from someone’s life can stand in for their entire character. You know Julie K. from math class as the track-and-field sprinter and only as that. She becomes inseparable from that received identity, even though there are a multitude of possible identities and icons that could be assigned to Julie K.
Our conception and understanding of the people around us is entirely determined by this process of ‘taking as’ and iconography. Human interactions are dictated not by deep connection but by situational meeting and superficial knowledge. It’s really hard to know another person on a level beyond that of a symbol, and often there’s no need to. Streams of information are difficult to learn and to keep track of, which is why iconographic symbols are so effective. I don’t want that kind of information in their head, and I’d guess that you don’t either.
The weirdest part is that these stories that we know about other people are always in flux, changing in the neural network of our minds, never truly discerning the fact from the fabricated. Small, insignificant details swap places and shift from the realm of fact to hyperbole. Over time, the entire nature of the story can shift, moving totally out of the realm of the real into the mythic. And yet, as a person’s symbolic meaning changes, it has no effect on their physical or mental being; they remain unchanged, while meaningfully changing.
And so, whenever I close my eyes, I can imagine Guston’s “The Coat II” in my mind. The canvas might factually hang in the Abstract Expressionist Gallery at the Anderson, but the real version of the painting exists locked in the labyrinthine structure of my mind. The reality of the first encounter dissolves and is replaced by such metaphoric resonances. Two neurons away from Guston rest my conceptions of my friends, of all the people I know, in their most real and immediate form. It is in the open cavern of my head where they exist in their most real form, regardless of any claims to an external existence.
It is in the semblance of stability and fixedness that our world is most groundless; paintings make me sad.
Contact Josh Wagner at jwagner4 ‘at’ stanford.edu.