Black Lives Matter. We stand in solidarity with those affected by generations of structural violence. You can help »

The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2013

All Issues
SEPT 2013 Issue
Critics Page

Art Is

Only the unanswerable questions are real beyond immediate gratification.
The answerable ones are liaisons dangereuses.

Ontononymous the Particular

Ann Hamilton in art is: Speaking Portraits by George Quasha.

An artist is a person who makes art, and art is what she makes. There is an unlimited number of possible responses to the question what is art? just as there is no limit to instances of what can be called art. Although this is self-evident, the mind continues to weave new responses to the question, as if the fate of art depended on the answer. It’s an inevitable activity for the art-making mind, much the way we can’t help focusing on the question of what life is or, indeed, what mind is. Life goes on, mind continues to function, yet we have only partial or specialized answers to these big questions, barely scratching the itch. Likewise art continues, and, on some quite primary level, art knows what it is, at least up to the point where it tries to say what it is; then the trouble begins. Art knows what it is the way life knows what it is in that it’s born knowing how to make more of itself. When the artist is making art, art is knowing what it is (without thinking about it); and when it stops making, it might, perhaps out of nostalgia for the state of making, start wondering what it is and is not. Is this activity a surrogate for art-making, a further manifestation of the same activity, art reflecting on itself? Reflection may offer answers but it’s hardly dependent on getting those answers, which at best are impermanent; reflection, like art, makes more of itself. The inseparability of art and life is a prominent avant-garde theme at least since John Cage et al., yet that inseparability, considered as a basic truth, must really be at the fundamental level of the nature of life. It’s at that level that it makes sense to regard the what-art-is question as ontologically significant, and therefore unavoidable. It will never go away, and that fact has nothing intrinsically to do with answers.

Over a decade ago I began a video art project called art is in which I ask artists (including poets, musicians, filmmakers, and others) to say what, in their own view, it (art, poetry, music, etc.) is. An ongoing project, I have filmed (just the speaking face of) over 1,000 artists (poets, musicians, dancers) in 11 countries (speaking some 24 languages). Many begin by saying either that they don’t know what it is or it’s impossible to say, and then they go on to say (often at length) what it is; I edit sessions down to a few minutes of their most powerful saying. In these speaking portraits, saying the impossible is what it’s about, and much of it is not only in the words but in the face and the voice. Something fundamental about what art is comes through the very saying. Overall you get a glimpse of art knowing what it is, the performative truth of art saying itself.


George Quasha

George Quasha is a poet, artist, and performing sound artist. Recent books include Axial Stones: An Art of Precarious Balance (2006, foreword Carter Ratcliff); An Art of Limina: Gary Hill’s Works and Writings (2009, with Charles Stein; foreword Lynne Cooke); Verbal Paradise (preverbs) (2011); and Scorned Beauty Comes Up From Behind (preverbs). A 2006 Guggenheim Fellow in video art, his art is: Speaking Portraits recording over 1000 artists/poets/composers in 11 countries, appears online at


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2013

All Issues