On the very day the long-awaited Nam June Paik retrospective was to open at the Stedelijk Museum, the museum, like all art institutions in the Netherlands, was closed.
Nam June Paik’s small, nearly fifty-year-old TV set, into which an antique Buddha stares at his own image projected live on the screen, was not turned on either. The camera was not on either. The screen remained dark.
Nam June Paik, ‘TV-Buddha’, 1974.
Collectie Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. Foto: Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam
Strangely, this stillborn day contributed something new to the famous installation. The power of the ‘TV Buddha’, as with many good works of art, lies in the apparent simplicity which conceals its complexity, in “ever so beautifully lit waters” as Lucebert once wrote. A great many interpretations of the work have thus been proposed over the past few decades. For example, one surmises a reconciliation between East (Buddhism) and West (television), another, a critique of the empty emptiness of mass culture that literally reflects the utter emptiness pursued in meditation. It could be attempting to undermine the classical philosophical distinction of subject and object; who is watching whom? Who is the watcher and who is being watched? And what of this is reflected in the eyes and minds of a third party, the audience?, Was it a hymn of praise to technology, or was it criticism?
The Buddha remained silent. And in the meantime meditated quietly, and the gaze remained turned inwards even when on this Friday, the thirteenth, he did not become the centre of attention. That moment, one might imagine, was a veritable moment of enlightenment, precisely in that the light didn’t go on and what had been planned for a large audience was seen by none. Silence is not the absence of sound, but the lack of sound where one might expect it, or might have just heard it, or expect one might hear it again in a moment. Emptiness is staying away from everyone at the opening, totally zen, Totally zen, like the legendary clapping of one hand.
Seen in this light, it seemed for a moment that even corona could not make art insignificant. However, this would be a very optimistic conclusion, because, in the meantime, audiences, museums, and, just as dismaying, the artists, have been duped. Anyone who wants to see or hear or experience art now has to content themselves with mere digital versions – a situation that perhaps attests to the predictive power of ‘TV Buddha’. Whatever the case, for those for whom art, theatre and music mean something important, this is a catastrophic time.
Yet it is fair to ask how disastrous this situation really is when people are diligently looking for medicine, hospital beds, means of livelihood, work, school, exercise and fresh air. Is now the time to moan about the lack of art? We have literature, and further, isn’t art that which contributes something to our existence once we have that existence in order – a situation which unfortunately is not the case now? Shouldn’t the arts wait on the reserve bench for a while until society is somewhat back in running order?
I don’t know. Even if we could decide,there isn’t one direct solution to all the current problems we face and we are not sure about whether we can accept all the stopgap solutions we are presented with. This is precisely where art might play a role. I don’t mean that the creativity of the artist should propose solutions to our pressing problems, because these will really have to come from sensible administrations and experts. I mean that art can be helpful because through art we learn how to deal with things we do not well understand. Artworks train us to live with ambiguities, to suspend judgements, and to derive meaning from unclear situations.
Something has changed in art since the Romantic period when artists no longer felt obliged to follow the existing rules and began to propose their own rules. Mozart composed on commission, but Beethoven only when he was touched by inspiration. The same was true for painters, look at how William Blake suddenly broke loose in a series of visionary drawings full of texts from the Beyond. The poets followed suit, all setting their own rules, leaving the reader, listener or audience to try to fathom those rules before he or she could make anything out of their art. The classical ideal of beauty had been shattered.
From then on, art became experimental and would remain so through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries until the present day. This enormous freedom was both a blessing for the artist, who could now explore in any direction, and a curse, precisely because now everything became possible and therefore threatened to become arbitrary. The same was true for the public: the wealth of possibilities increased, but also a new task arose, that of attributing meanings to things which emerge from obscurity without a clear set of rules. And even though the avant-garde put out magazines and pamphlets to explain what was at stake, and even though art criticism flourished, from this time on, the public was more or less left to its own devices.
The French philosopher Roland Barthes would later on explain this situation in a new way. In his 1967 book of the same name, he described the death of the author, with the famous phrase: “The birth of the reader must be paid for with the death of the author”. In other words, the author’s intentions or biography is irrelevant; once the work is completed, it is all about interpreting it (and the same goes for enjoying, experiencing, discussing, visiting, reading, listening).
Here lurks not only the pleasure, but also the meaning of art. The artist does one half of the work, then the other must take over. This is why art is always ambiguous: one doesn’t read what one reads because it doesn’t say what it says. One sees a Buddha in front of a TV set, but it is (also) something else. It is up to us to think of what.
Many people feel embarrassed because they think they don’t understand a work of art or because they don’t like it. But art is not a riddle with a solution, no interpretation is wrong. And they don’t have to like it; it can also intrigue, provoke, make them laugh or make them think. What matters is that we are asked to give meaning in an uninhibited way to what we don’t or can’t quite understand.
That is exactly what is asked of us in these times. The coronavirus is not a work of art, nor are the catastrophes that result from it. But although, understandably, we are always so desperate for more clarity and certainty, those who can relativize their annoyance about ambiguity and insecurity may be better off. And here the arts can help, by giving us practice in offering alternative interpretations, narratives or perspectives, and providing space for those feelings.
In Tolstoi’s ‘War and Peace’, for example, we can enjoy reading how all kinds of individuals experience the world in their own ways, without us needing to have any understanding or experience of troop movements. Or in Samuel Beckett’s great ‘Endgame’ one can experience the extreme absurdity of existence through the scene in which Hamm, who can’t walk, harasses his servant Clov, who can’t sit down, while his parents occasionally stick their heads out of a garbage can and make things worse. Even non-believers can also undergo indescribable religious experiences of suffering and loss through Bach’s ‘Johannes Passion’, just as others may with Beyoncé.
What matters is that the arts have a lot to offer us here, not only as comfort or distraction, but also as providing practice in dealing with all the new uncertainties, like the one hand clapping.
Maarten Doorman is a writer and philosopher. His last two books are ‘Daphne’s navel. On Art and Engagement’ (2016) and ‘Near and Far. essays on art, philosophy and literature’ (2018).
Art and crisis — Thinking about art in times of corona
The arts are taking a break. Theatres, museums, concert halls and galleries are closed. To a large extent, the art that is so desperately needed right now is inaccessible. Imagine being quarantined at home without films, without books, without music.
Though we may not access the art, we can still think about it. The enforced rupture of this isolation can also be an opportune moment to reflect on and from, the arts.
Every Sunday for the coming weeks we will feature new writing on the arts under quarantine. Today we have the first offering from the initiators of this series: Akiem Helmling and Christiaan Weijts.