The artist Jonn Herschend makes a commentary, in the form of a “powerpoint presentation”, on a painting by Philip Guston. This painting can be seen in its material reality if you care to visit SFMOMA. In case you missed it* Herschend’s commentary is a an art work in its own right.
I wonder if you would care to riff on either or both Herschend’s offering and Guston’s painting. (As a perhaps-but-not-necessarily irrelevant aside, back in 2005 I entered a PowerPoint Presentation into a competition at the Pacific Film Archive. In collaboration with the philosopher Alva Noë, my work won first place.)
* excuse my assertive sarcasm. I am having an east coast moment.
My dear curator, assertive and sarcastic as you are I am grateful for this submission.
(By the way, I am guessing that this powerpoint can be directly embedded, so readers do not have to click somewhere else to see it?)
This is of course a “proposal for a powerpoint presentation, “not a “powerpoint presentation” as you suggest. I have watched it. What follows is my riff.
I like the repetitive circling-back to the question of what to do about the displacement and dispersion of objects in the material world. Dog beds are thrown out, then salvaged. Fish line becomes unspooled, preventing containers from closing. A water hose, unconnected to anything, lies under a plant. We cannot ignore them. They demand attention. But attention to what exactly?
Take the artist’s old drawing of a dog in clown pants. It exists. It is neurologically part of his brain (and now ours too) and physically, as a thing of mass and size, it is part of his garage. Should he discard it? Shouldn’t he? What do we do with it? Not just him, but you and me and everyone who is now considering it. What can we do with this drawing?
What if we were to discard all of the objects in our lives — except the useful ones, the contemporary ones, the categorizable ones? Would our brains have less clutter then? Or would we remember, always, those that we discard? The fundamental question seems to me: Is entropy good or bad? Without entropy we can imagine we might maintain… perfect form. But we would also not move or change. Without the dispersal and even the dissolution of objects we would be — what? — without a relationship to the world at all? Imagine existence without waste, without falling off, without shedding skins… What exactly would we be?
Herschend’s proposal for a powerpoint presentation explores this theme of entropy effectively. It uses the Guston painting merely as a prompt. The painting is looked at and its figurative elements enumerated, but so what? I actually think this powerpoint would be stronger if it started as a confessional piece, among the pieces of saw horse and the tangled fish line and those boxes in his garage: in the details of Herschend’s lived experience, rather than in response to another work of art. The “commentary” aspect seemed, to me, somewhat of a false start. Herschend’s confession narrative seemed to cut closer to the heart of it.
The terror of betrayal that this powerpoint expresses, the certainty of humiliation, the despondency and helplessness in the face of clutter — these are familiar sensations to all of us. The presentation is comical because it veers, over and over again, close to madness or stupidity or both (i.e. mistaken priorities, flawed suppositions). In the end, I am sorry to say, I was not as moved as I would have liked. (Were you? I am confident you were, that you are, and I would love to hear how.)
My favorite part: the blue square that pops up, making small observations, as if there is another, more exacting, differently troubled commentator, even beyond Jonn Herschend. This could go on endlessly. I want to see powerpoint presentations commenting on the blue squares…
Why am I not more moved, though, by this powerpoint presentation? To me, Kafka does this so much better, page after page, in his novels and stories. Why is that? I think it is because Kafka makes me feel not only terror or humiliation, but sorrow. That’s the missing element here. There is a playfulness in this powerpoint that strikes me as arch and controlling, rather than honest. The pain is not expressed but only hinted at, I think. Bugs me. Having said that, I think the talent shown in the rhythm of the slides and the concise phraseology is obvious. A worthwhile piece. As an exploration of how we formalize the ways in which we think and present information, it is great. As a work of art, though, it is stunted, for me at least.
Postscript: after I wrote this I thought a little more about the formal style of this powerpoint, and how susceptible we are to the idea that one person (Herschend, a TED speaker, the President of the United States, and so on) may be able to impart information to us in a meaningful way. What do we think someone is doing when he or she presents slides in a powerpoint? Herschend shows us, quite humorously and effectively, that it is not so much imparting information that is going on, but rather, he is directing our attention. There is no pristine, discrete information to impart. There is only the question of the attention we direct to the dispersed things around us. Is this true of all performance, and more to the point, all communication? Is this true of all art? Are, say, Racine, Cezanne, Beethoven, merely directing our attention, and the sounds, and the images and the notes we experience when confronted with their work are, in some sense, already available to us, part of the clutter and noise of our world? Is that why genius is described as “new but true” (Hazlitt)? The new part is the focus not the content?