Harold Rosenberg lamented that artworks in the late ’60s had become centaurs, “half art materials and half words.” The same could be said of all objects; the entire sensorium is a monster constituted of language-saturated consciousness and its dodgy attachment, matter. Nostalgia for a time when experience was less mediated by words has been around forever, but Rosenberg’s metaphor for hybridity, perhaps unintentionally, acknowledges the vitality of that classically imagined equine quadruped with arms. Rosenberg doesn’t specify, though, which part of the centaur stands for art materials and which for words. I’d like to think that words are the hindquarters, good for motility, digestion, elimination, and sex, while art materials get to be the head, arms, lungs, and heart. It’s not clear, though, if centaurs reproduce. The metaphor gets even more complicated when the Internet and social space roll in.
How does a person’s solitary encounter with a painting or sculpture, considering each work’s stubborn materiality and singular location, relate to the way that same object might be experienced in a click-driven screen-space? Some works thrive brilliantly by means of easy reproducibility and telegraphic semiosis. Attached anecdotes, like a big price, a noteworthy venue, or famous names, help. But have words become overbearing? Not when they are thoughtful and well written. The amount of words spent worrying over money in the artworld could benefit from pruning. Rosenberg would probably bemoan this other hybrid organism, combined of art materials and capital. Thomas Crow noticed in the mid-’90s that a “local community linked by open cognitive interests was no match for an emerging global service economy in the luxury sector laying claim to the name of art.” Words are good at making sense of social and historic context but hopefully are also good at expanding our capacity to have a deep relationship to individual works.
Artworks, like centaurs, are threshold entities—liminal beings. Wikipedia sounds like a gallery press prelease in its definition of liminal beings as having:
Semi-autonomous boundaries with the social world” and being “naturally ambiguous, challenging the cultural networks of social classification. Often materialized in the form of legendary constructs, liminal beings appear in everyday life in such familiar forms as corporations, computers, women, and celebrities challenging the normal social and legal classifications of the person.
If virality is a measure of image success in cyberspace (virility?) maybe it’s also worth thinking of the virus as a type of liminal being with metaphoric possibilities for artworks in actual space. A virus is made of a protective shell around some molecules of DNA or RNA that contain information capable of being reproduced. Not everybody agrees that viruses are alive, not—anyway—in ways we usually understand. But perhaps a virus’ ability to make reproductions and mutate adaptively models the desires of galleries and their artists (protective shells around coded information): they imagine little centaurs venturing forth to thrive in, and disturb, the social habitat.
The exchange between a unique art object and a person happens at a smaller scale and is harder to measure than analogous exchanges in cyberspace. What is the scale of an impression or a thought? The artwork’s virality is subtle and slow; unanticipated effects drift into language and culture. In answer to Nancy Princenthal’s question: Words can’t win; they can’t even be separated out as an opponent. Like the bacteria that comprise most of the cells in our body, words participate in every thought and feeling. I’m happy that Harold Rosenberg’s mutating centaur still has legs.