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Anatomies in Action: Artaud’s Self-Portraits

Anatomies in Action

Who am I?

Where do I come from?

I am Antonin Artaud

and if I say it

as I know how to say it


you will see my present body

fly into pieces

and under ten thousand

notorious aspects

a new body

will be assembled

in which you will never again be able

to forget me.

- Artaud, The Theater of Cruelty

My drawings are anatomies in action.

- Artaud, Letter to Marc Barbezat, 21 August 1947

How are we to see Antonin Artaud’s self-portraits? How do the drawings of this actor, director, poet, visionary function? Within what tradition should we locate these works? What images precede them in Artaud’s eyes – how did Artaud learn to see – what tradition(s) shaped his hand and vision? And what is their legacy? What is it to see after Artaud’s drawings?

None of these questions can be answered definitively; they each open onto a speculative field, the space of the visionary. To narrow this field, my own speculation will focus on Artaud’s self-portraits rather than on his graphic work as a totality. In a moment of impossible reciprocity, hopefully my gaze will begin to reflect his own.

Across the variety of graphic works he produced – a variety that challenges any developmental or evolutionary interpretive strategy – Artaud’s style and subject matter(s) remain consistently fluid. Though he concentrates on abstract or conceptual images while confined at the asylum at Rodez and on portraits while at Ivry – and while one must admit that the drawings from each of these periods are undoubtedly consistent in their general style and effect – Artaud never permitted his graphic work to settle into a consistent format.

This is particularly remarkable given the stylistics of Artaud’s later – Rodez and post-Rodez – prose. In that writing, whether it be labeled poetry or prose, whether it be a letter or an essay on theater, literature (like his “Lettre sur Lautréamont” (1946)) or on visual art (like his essay on Van Gogh), Artaud’s literary style and general method remained markedly consistent rather than inconsistent. The lines of his prose came to be punctuated, or not, for rhythmic, rather than grammatical, effect; his language, often interrupted with passages of necessarily idiosyncratic glossolalia and studded with neologistic barbs, adopted the form of pure rhythmic force: The ideational content of words was ground to elemental bits through Artaud’s incessant mastication of language. The style Artaud invented in these late writings permitted him the widest of latitudes in subject-matter and rhythmic effect. Perhaps this very freedom explains his adoption of a consistent style of writing.

His graphic works however fail to settle into any equivalent mode. Passing from image to image in a catalogue of Artaud’s drawings, one searches in vain for any trajectory of development within the various periods. General statements can be made, developmental trends loosely identified, but the overall impression remains one of radical heterogeneity, stylelessness, discomfort.

This interpretation however is not shared by everyone. In her introduction to the selection of Artaud’s portraits from Ivry gathered in the catalogue from the Museum of Modern Art show of Artaud’s work, Agnès de la Beaumelle notices a mastery of craft in these late drawings: “Artaud,” she observes, “possessed, after leaving Rodez, a total mastery of his means of expression, oral and graphic.” Following Artaud’s description of his work, she notes that this mastery expressed itself through a “pitiful awkwardness of forms” (Artaud’s words), which was nonetheless “effective” (her word) (Rowell 90). The paradox at the center of this reading is striking: How are “mastery” and “awkwardness” related? And how can “awkwardness” be effective?

Within the context of the museum, the discourse of mastery and the master-work has been well-established. De la Beaumelle supports her use of this discourse in this case by observing compelling details of skill apparent in Artaud’s drawings. And indeed, such details are there to be observed. Particularly in the portraits drawn at Ivry, Artaud’s handling of his materials can be highly proficient and professional. His use of shading and the careful yet assured articulation of his strokes do indicate something like a “mastery” of this medium.

Yet the drawings themselves remain inconsistent. The portraits drawn in late 1946 – those of Sima Feder, of Florence Loeb, and the self-portrait from December 17, 1946, in particular –  stand out as highly accomplished, realistically drawn portraits. They are signed and dated in keeping with the demands of the art establishment and present themselves as finished “works”. And yet, one hesitates over even these images: the faces are not centered on the page, the heads include no necks or necks that seem to drift off, or dangle as threads of viscera hanging from the seemingly severed objects.

Nor does the œuvre as a whole suggest a developmental trend based on an increasing mastery of means. The standard art historical model suggests a period of juvenilia, in which an artist has yet to master their medium, followed by a period of maturity, during which the artist has gained control or their medium to a degree which permits them to develop and deploy a unique or “signature” style. While Artaud’s early graphic works – from the 1910s and 1920s – certainly qualify as juvenilia, his later works, as I have suggested, hardly reveal themselves as characterized by anything like a consistent style or even range of aesthetic concerns. The drawings from Rodez share almost nothing with those from Ivry. And, significantly, those of Ivry, while obviously related to one another, and obviously born of similar aesthetic concerns, remain radically discontinuous. Artaud’s styles and devices multiply rather than becoming more refined as his work progresses. The later drawings from Ivry seem no more self-assured than the earlier drawings.

Many factors might explain this phenomenon. Most obviously, Artaud undoubtedly executed drawings, early and late, with greater and lesser degrees of attentiveness. The minimalist, sketch-like quality evidenced by the single lines that articulate the portrait of Rolande Prevel from August 20, 1946 might be compared to the single lines which constitute the self-portrait of December 1947. Similarly, the self-assured portraits of late 1946 might be compared with the rather accomplished portrait of Georges Pastier from December 1947. We might understand the sketch-like portraits as having been dashed off as it were, while the others benefited from a more extended attention to points of detail and nuances of shading. Yet, for all the obviousness of this observation, this too strikes me as unsatisfactory. The self-portrait of December 1947 includes non-realistic scratches and lines of force that are absent from the portrait of Rolande Prevel as well as from the other drawings of late 1946. These deep lines give this image a decidedly abstract, iconic power. This self-portrait is drawn from the front rather than the customary three-quarter view as is the case in the other portraits; and this full frontal view only adds to the flattened, abstract quality of the image. Here the minimalist power of the image follows not from its quality as a quick sketch, as is the case in the works of Constantin Guys so famously celebrated by Baudelaire, but rather from a kind of iconic reduction performed on the self here portrayed. This is not a timeless moment torn from the present, as in Guys, but rather the eradication of time from the sense of the image. But does the work depict an abstraction of the self or is something else at work in these images? And why does Artaud fail to settle into a consistent style?

Artaud is absolutely clear on this point. In the catalogue essay he wrote for his show at the Galerie Pierre he tells us: “I’ve deliberately broken with art, style or skill in the drawings that one will see here. I mean there’ll be trouble for those who consider them works of art, works of aesthetic simulation of reality. Not one properly speaking is a work, all are sketches, I mean soundings or gropes in all the directions of accident, of possibility, of chance or of destiny.”[i] Elsewhere he claims: “My drawings are not drawings but documents. You must look at them and understand what’s inside.”[ii]

One way to understand Artaud’s appeal to the practice of “soundings or grop[ings]” in his art is to remember that, for Artaud, – speaking in terms of theatrical language in Le Théâtre et son Double – “an expression does not have the same value twice […] all words once spoken are read and function only at the moment when they are uttered, that a form, once it has served, cannot be used again and ask only to be replaced by another” (75). In order to be effective, then, images, like words, and the stylistic gestures that create images, must be singular, they cannot be perfected through trial and error.

Extending this notion, one can say that Artaud goes so far as to deny himself the cultivation of mastery. The mastery of one’s means requires repetition, it requires the artist to practice a particular gesture or trope – the use of a word, the motion of the body, the fixity of an expression – over and over again until that gesture or trope has been solidified as in some ideal state. Think of a soldier: soldiers are trained so that they do not have to think, every action and expression has become “second nature.” For Artaud, this type of training toward mastery, this carefully cultivated repetition only illustrates the emptiness of this world: our bodies do not belong to us, but rather we are animated by images and ideas which seem to be beyond our control; we are motivated from without.

Leaving aside the above-mentioned notion of “what’s inside” a drawing for the moment: Note that Artaud, in his catalogue essay, claims to have “deliberately broken with art, style, or skill”. This is to say, once again, that his drawings respond, however negatively, to the tradition of Western art. Taking Artaud’s assertion that he has “broken with art, style, or skill” as a concept, one may posit the notion of a “breaking-with” (my phrase) traditional forms and styles of representation. This notion is significant, and can be extended beyond the problems of art history. In that same catalogue essay, Artaud claims: “In the portraits I have drawn I have above all avoided forgetting the nose the mouth the eyes the ears or the hair, but I’ve sought to force the face that was talking to me to reveal the secret.”[iii] In other words, “breaking-with”, for Artaud, means making art in response to the tradition, which is to say, against the tradition, and it also means making representations – what Artaud would call “doubles” –  in response to or against the actual physical body of his sitter. On this point Artaud claims: “I had made up my mind to coax out those forms, lines, outlines, shadows, colors, features that […] would represent nothing and would moreover not claim to be integrated in accordance with whatsoever visual and material law, but would create, as it were, above the paper a kind of counter-figure which would be an on-going protest against the laws of the created object”[iv] Artaud’s portraits should not be taken as mere images, or simulations of the reality of his sitters, but rather as counter-figures, doubles, of his sitters, images made against the image of the sitter.

In this way one can understand the tremendous violence of Artaud’s portrait art: Artaud’s portraits are portraits of violation as well as being the violation of portraits. His sitter’s images are crushed, the faces are flattened and bent, noses are extended and given lumps, heads are misshapen, features are under-emphasized or even erased, sometimes half of the head is missing, skins are scorched with cigarette burns, or with the graphite knots of plague buboes, cheeks are bloated, colors engulf the images in fire and the sky-blue of pure energy, setting them off against themselves and against the page. These are images of cruelty in the sense Artaud gives to this word because “it is cruelty that cements matter together, cruelty that molds the features of the created world. Good is always upon the outer face, but the face within is evil. Evil which will eventually be reduced, but at the supreme instant when everything that was form will be on the point of returning to chaos.”[v] Artaud’s drawings, both his drawings from Rodez and his portraits, require conflict for the articulation of their meanings.

Cruelty, for Artaud, is a function of the meeting place of meaning and form. It is the embodiment of sense as both idea and affect. Yet embodiment, or rather the body, is itself the problem. For Artaud, the body is always the body in pain. It is always already a body at odds with itself, seemingly occupied or animated from without. It is a mutilated body suffering incessantly from a certain lack, a lack caused the violent split between mind and body, between idea and affect. Salvation entails a making whole of this damaged body. For Artaud, “the mutilated body is this stomach of misery that is always seeking to reassemble itself.”[vi] The project of reassembling the human body is the project of remaking the human body. Artaud deploys his art, in all its manifestations, toward this singular purpose. “True theater,” he writes in his poem-essay Theater and Science, “has always seemed to me the exercise of a dangerous and terrible act. […] The act I’m talking about aims for a true organic and physical transformation of the human body. […] Theater is this crucible of fire and real meat where by an anatomical trampling of bone, limbs and syllables bodies are renewed and the mythical act of making a body presents itself physically and plainly.”[vii] Here again one can see the notion of cruelty at work: the “anatomical trampling of bone, limbs and syllables” which “makes the body” is a cruel act of embodiment, of giving form to matter. Note too that Artaud’s practice of cruelty incorporates images, sounds and the body, and that this body is, significantly, a shattered body of separated limbs, like the body of Osiris, torn to pieces and reassembled. Artaud’s art is an art of the body and of the voice: “There is in my drawings a sort of musical morality that I have made by living my strokes, not only with the hand but with the rasping of the breath of my trachea and the teeth of my mastication.”[viii] The images are chewed over, spit on the page. In a letter to Dr. Ferdière, Artaud described his process still more precisely: “The sentences I wrote on the drawing I gave you I sought out syllable by syllable, out loud while working, to see if the verbal sonorities capable of aiding the comprehension of the one looking at my drawing had been found.”[ix] Artaud had already expressed this notion and goal in another media altogether : theater. In Le Théâtre et son Double, he wrote: “The overlapping of images and movements will culminate, through the collision of objects, silences, shouts, and rhythms, or in a genuine physical language with signs, not words, as its root”( 124). The conflicts of text and image, of images and ideas, ultimately collapse in the realm of force. Images convey not form but force.

Artaud’s drawings, like his theater and his poetry, tend toward the eradication of aesthetic boundaries. His drawings include texts not in a supplementary fashion: the texts do not complete the drawing, they compete with it, they disrupt its sense: sounds and images collide, the meaning of the image cannot be confined to the page. “The drawings of which I am speaking to you are full of larval forms, in the stumbling itself of the pencil’s line, and I wanted them to work in concert with each other so that with the colors, the shadows, and their emphases the whole would become valid and singular.”[x] The singularity of Artaud’s images remains a consistent and constant goal.

Related to this one must understand Artaud’s drawings not as sketches made toward the later execution of some master-image or some final “complete” drawing of some subject. Artaud’s drawings are always sketches: not sketches like those made by Constantin Guys, but rather cruel gropings, gestures, or jabs at his subject. He says: “I haven’t sought to take great pains with my lines or their effects but rather to inventory the kinds of patent linear truths which are as valid through words, through written phrases, as through the graphism and perspective of lines. It is in this way that several drawings are a mixture of poems and portraits, of written interjections and plastic evocations of fundamental materials of human beings or animals.”[xi] The lines and points of the drawings do not converge but overlap, conflict. They remain “interstitial” and in the interstices the emotion that generated the drawing appears. This is what Artaud means by the “inside” of the drawing. The viewer “must superadd [surajouter] this primal emotion subordinated by nature on pain of becoming no more than an incompetent illiterate.”[xii] Artaud’s drawings draw their viewer in, they require the participation of the viewer, not merely through the viewer’s suspension of disbelief, as is required in tromp l’oeil imagery, but through the viewer’s bodily response to the material forces of the images, sounds, and ideas of the art. This is a question not only of imagination but of affect. It is a question of form, meaning the materiality of the images, sounds, and ideational content, as force.

This affective participation characterizes not only Artaud’s drawings but his theater of cruelty as well. In Le Théâtre et son Double, he writes: “The theater, far from copying life, puts itself whenever possible in communication with pure forces. And whether you accept or deny them, there is nevertheless a way of speaking which gives the name of ‘forces’ to whatever brings to birth images of energy in the unconscious, and gratuitous crime on the surface. […] A violent and concentrated action is a kind of lyricism: it summons up supernatural images, a bloodstream of images, a bleeding spurt of images in the poet’s head and in the spectator’s as well” (82). “A gesture,” he says, “carries its energy with it” (81).

Artaud’s art offers a study in conflicts and contradictions, the paper or page becomes a field for the infinite play of forces. The incompleteness of his images, the tears and ruptures on the surface of the sheets, the violence and defacement which characterizes these faces, all of these features open a space of testimony – meaning a space into which the viewer must insert themselves, as both affect and imagination – to the human condition.

The images and texts, the ideas and physical forms on the page, the sounds of the words and syllables conflict with and disrupt one another in an intertextual  delirium. Speaking of his drawing “La maladresse sexuelle de dieu” (The Sexual awkwardness of god), Artaud says: “This drawing is intentionally spoiled, thrown on the page in contempt of forms and lines, in order to show contempt for the original idea and to succeed in neutralizing it.”[xiii] The awkwardness of the drawing, its stylessness – whether conceived as a refusal of or revolt against style – does mirror the subject-matter of the drawing as this subject is stated in the title the sexual awkwardness of god. But this modernist mimetic doubling – in which the form of the work repeats the content of the work – opens onto an even more troubling agon. Here, and in Artaud’s art in general, text and image at once cohere and do not cohere, the heterogeneity of the word and the image remains irreducible. The caption at once extends and undermines the sense of the image. Meaning, as idea, collapses into meaning as infinite struggle.

The cruelty of Artaud’s art consists in its relentless reduction of consciousness as idea to consciousness as force. Speaking of Lucas van den Leyden’s “The Daughter’s of Lot” in Le Théâtre et son Double, Artaud tells us how a painting should work: “It seems as if the painter possessed certain secrets of linear harmony, certain means of making that harmony affect the brain directly, like a physical agent” (35). One is reminded of Francis Bacon’s famous question as to why “some paint comes across directly onto the nervous system and other paint tells you the story in a long diatribe with the brain.”[xiv] Artaud’s art represents a search for an answer to that same question. His art making is a search for texts and images, for sounds and ideas that work directly on the nervous system, and through this direct intervention in forms and forces of the human body, to reassemble or heal the shattered or broken body – the body broken by spirits, by ideas – that characterizes the human condition. “The goal of all these drawn and colored figures was to exorcise the curse, to vituperate bodily against the exigencies of spatial form, of perspective, of measure, of equilibrium, of dimension and, via this vituperative act of protest, to condemn, the psychic world which, like a crab louse, digs its way into the physical, and, like an incubus or succubus, claims to have formed it.”[xv]

How is this strategy visible in his self-portraits?

Controversy surrounds Artaud’s turn to self-portraiture. Following Thévenin’s catalogue raisonnée in his article “The Art of the Crack-Up”, Sylvère Lotringer observes that “Artaud’s portraits started with his self-portrait, but it is significant that other faces or bodies are present as well at the bottom of his, poked by the same marks, repulsive and deadly like his own with one eye looking blankly and the other wide open in the direction of the viewer.”[xvi] Lotringer is referring to Artaud’s composite portrait of May 11, 1946 (Thévenin cat. no. 69, Rowell cat. no. 32). The image presents an uneven triangular grouping of heads: Artaud’s self-portrait, seen directly from the front, occupies the high center of the paper while four smaller heads are grouped below. To the left on this lower rank an older woman or man’s face is presented in three-quarter view. Two smaller, almost comically abstract faces occupy the center, while a smaller version of what may be Artaud’s face, again seen from the front, is placed on the right. All of the faces on this page are covered in circular “knots” of concentrated graphite, as though Artaud were trying to rub his way through the image. These “knots”, already present in other drawings, may represent the famous buboes which characterize the flesh of the plague victim, celebrated by Artaud in his Sorbonne lecture, “Le Théâtre et la peste” (1933). The features of the two self-portraits here demarcated by forcefully dark lines, cross-hatched and re-drawn in over-emphasis. Drawn in this way the facial features – the lines of the forehead, of the brow, the bridge of the nose – appear as wounds or scars, as openings in the skin rather than as finely sculpted features. Yet other features, and the entire portrait at the bottom left, are left as only light sketches, barely articulated. The self-portrait on the bottom right includes what appear to be two large pins or needles like those used in acupuncture, one inserted in the nose from below the face to our left, the other into the chin from directly below. The eyes of each of the five images are over-emphasized, the pupils ringed in black.

In the catalogue, this image appears between “Les Corps de terre” (Earth’s bodies) dated may 3, 1946, and the portrait now widely known as “La Tête bleue” (The Blue Head) dated with only the month of May, 1946. “Les Corps de terre” continues many of the motifs common in the drawings from Rodez: stick figures or merely crooked lines are set-off among anatomical features – in this case more or less realistically drawn hands, feet and a skull – vague symbols, and a short dedicatory text. “La Tête bleue” presents a highly abstract female face in three-quarter view. The elongated face seems drawn on the brink of dissolution: the left side of the image includes shadings and lines of shadow drawn to such an excess that, along with the other elements of motion characterizing the drawing, the face seems as though it were drawn in sand, hovering on the edge of the wind, waiting to be torn away from itself into the collapse of all form. The images prior to “Les Corps de terre” include no portraits, only drawings done in the style Artaud developed at Rodez. After “La Tête bleue”, Artaud, released to Ivry, would concentrate his graphic work on portraiture almost entirely.

In light of these remarks, the composite self-portrait of 11 May 1946 does seem to mark a significant turning point in Artaud’s graphic oeuvre, as Lotringer suggests. Leaving aside the possibility, indeed the high likelihood, that this drawing represents the only surviving drawing from that moment rather than the singular product of that moment – I have already discussed reasons why we should believe this to be the case –, several observations may nonetheless be made. One may note the continuity of this image with Artaud’s other drawings: the “knots” studding the faces were present in previous drawings of human anatomical parts, the composite nature of this image anticipates the composite images that Artaud would execute in the final months of his life, etc. Thus while the image fits neatly into the continuum of Artaud’s graphic works, it also marks a turning point between the earlier abstract studies and the later portraits. For Lotringer, as noted, it is highly significant that this drawing be a self-portrait. It is as though, in his reading, the step or turn between the abstract drawings and the later portraits of himself and others, could only be made by means of this moment of self-appraisal. This reading tempts one to interpret the abstractions from Rodez as representing some form of “inner” realm, while the later portraits clearly refer to the world around him in highly specific ways. It is as though the abstractions represent some inner “self” constituted through the imaging of some ideational content, however idiosyncratic, while the later portraits shift the focus from images of this “self” to images of others. This interpretation is of course satisfied with the knowledge that Artaud rejoined society, as it were, through his release from Rodez during the very month of May 1946 when he executed this drawing.

Yet this interpretation remains unsatisfying to some. While the features of the principle figure and of the smaller image on the bottom right strongly resemble Artaud’s features, it has been suggested that only convention determines this portrait as a self-portrait. Now in a private collection, Dr. Gaston Ferdière reportedly obtained this image directly from Artaud’s hands immediately following its execution by the artist at Rodez. Dr. Ferdière, the story goes, asked Artaud to sign and date this self-portrait in keeping with the practices of the art market, and Artaud did so. Significantly however, Artaud did not title the image himself. It is only the strong resemblance of the principle figures features to Artaud’s features and Dr. Ferdière’s word that designate this image as a self-portrait.

The curator Florence de Mérédieu, for her part, in Portraits et gris-gris, writes of this portrait: “Always designated until now as a self-portrait of Antonin Artaud, the drawing seems to us rather to represent Dr. Ferdière surrounded by his medical team. Questioned exactly on this point, Gaston Ferdière does not entirely rule out this possibility, even specifying that the person on the bottom left is no other than Madame Rouquette in charge of the pharmacy at Rodez.”[xvii] Paule Thévenin, for her part, denies this possibility in “The Search for a Lost World.” In support of her view, Thévenin appeals to the testimony of Dr. Jean Dequeker as well as Dr. Ferdière’s previous testimony and, further, to the clear resemblance of these features of these faces not only to Artaud’s actual features, as she remembers them, as they may be seen in photographs, and as they are depicted by Artaud in other images that are clearly and distinctly self-portraits (51).

Yet another dissenting view can be found in Stephen Barber’s Artaud: The Screaming Body. For Barber “it becomes evident from viewing photographs taken in the same month of Artaud and Ferdière sitting together in the asylum grounds that the drawing is a vehement struggle of the identities of Artaud and Ferdière within the image. The face in the drawing distinctly resembles both that of Artaud and of his psychiatrist. […] Artaud compacts his identity and that of Ferdière together, in order to dissolve and finally negate the noxious presence of Ferdière and his power over Artaud’s life. Through the drawing, Artaud’s own identity visually and materially resurges.”[xviii] Barber cites the same text by Jean Dequeker that Thévenin cites, this time in support of the argument that the portrait represents neither only Dr. Ferdière, as Florence de Mérédieu suggests, nor only Artaud, as Thévenin suggests, but rather both of them. In Barber’s view, the execution of the drawing itself stages a conflict of identities from which, again in Barber’s view, Artaud’s identity “resurges”. This compromise position is compelling. But it remains unclear. How does such a struggle take place? And why should we assume that Artaud’s identity “resurges”, whatever that means, when the only evidence we have in support of such a notion is the fact that Dr. Ferdière claims this drawing represents a self-portrait of Artaud? In other words, if our interpretation of the drawing was initially complicated by the notion that this was not a portrait of Artaud at all, how can we simply correct this view by claiming that the drawing is a conflict of identities from which Artaud’s identity ultimately “resurges” victorious? The only evidence we have for such a claim is that the portrait has been labeled a self-portrait.

Without rejecting Barber’s reading tout court, it would seem that another, very similar, compromise position is possible. Sylvère Lotringer observes, speaking of Artaud’s portraits in general rather than of the particular portrait now under consideration: “Virtually all the portraits Artaud made, those of people he knew well or loved, those he hardly knew, are as much his own doubles as those of the people themselves. […] Artaud had become aware that the Other of the self is his worst enemy because it imposes a mask of sociality over the face. Artaud’s portraits are an attempt to tear down the mask”(199). In this reading, applied to the portrait currently under consideration, Artaud’s drawings are structured as doubles of both self and other, in which the image is deployed in such a way as to disrupt any pre-existing, stable image of self as well as any stable image of the other. The portrait represents an image – a double – sent out from self so as to occupy and transform, or rather collapse, one may even say crucify, the image of other. Artaud’s portraits, including his self-portraits can be understood, according to this view, as enacting Rimbaud’s famous dictum “I is an other.” Identification ultimately becomes impossible. In such images one is always and necessarily a stranger to oneself. These ideas can be developed more precisely through reference to Artaud’s own comments on the visual arts.

Artaud himself advances a similar interpretation in regard to a painting by Balthus of the actress Iya Abdy: “This is Iya Abdy’s face,” he writes, “these are her hands that the light devours, but another being, who is Balthus, seems to be behind this face, and in this body, like a sorcerer who seduces a woman with his soul.” This is not strange he claims because : “All painters bring their anatomy, their physiology, their saliva, their flesh, their blood, their sperm, their vices, their sexual diseases, their pathology, their prudishness, their health, their character, their personality or their madness into their works.”[xix] The painter takes their body with them into the world; the painter sees with the entirety of their body. The image is a meeting point, a point of reversibility, between the painter’s own body of affects and the senses and sensations provoked by the reality of the image in question. [xx] For Artaud, this is not a question of spiritual disembodiment, but rather of a war on the possibility of disembodiment. Artaud does not seek to formulate images or ideas of the world; his art is not a “simulation of reality”. Rather, it is a quest for an impossible embodiment: the meeting, via an image or combination of image and text, of at least two material bodies, those of Artaud and of the spectator. Here again the notion of cruelty returns. It should be remembered that the practice of cruelty, for Artaud, leaves no one on the side of innocence: “In the practice of cruelty there is a kind of higher determinism, to which the executioner-tormenter himself is subjected and which he must be determined to endure when the time comes. Cruelty is above all lucid, a kind of rigid control and submission to necessity. There is no cruelty without consciousness and without the application of consciousness.”[xxi]

Artaud outlines the portraitist’s task in “Le Visage humain…” : “The human face in effect carries a kind of perpetual death with it from which it’s really up to the painter to save it by giving it back its [ses] own particular features.”[xxii] Later in the same text, Artaud shifts his emphasis slightly but significantly: “Only Van Gogh was able to draw out of a human head a portrait which was the explosive rocket of the beating of a buried heart. / His own.” A confirmation of this interpretation, if such confirmation is needed, may be found in a statement Artaud wrote on one of his portraits. He wrote: “I am still terribly romantic like this drawing which represents me, in fact, too well, and I am weak, a weakness”. What is interesting about this statement is that it appears not on a self-portrait, as would seem to be indicated, but on Artaud’s Portrait of Jany de Ruy (See Rowell cat. no. 56[xxiii]).[xxiv] Whether or not one reads the first quote as referring to the artist’s own self-portrait, the second quote obviously places the burden of proof and the power of the image on a self-portrait. This is not to prioritize the self-portrait within Artaud’s oeuvre or thought – given the relative lack of attention Artaud showed this type of portraiture such an assertion would be absurd[xxv] – but it does shift our vision slightly in regard to all of Artaud’s other drawings. Every drawing must be seen as retaining or maintaining the trace of the artist’s hand and body, the artist’s vision.

But where should this assertion stop? If all painters bring their anatomy into their work, where does this anatomy end? Artaud himself speaks to his problem. He claims to have included inanimate objects, trees and animals in his drawings as a limit point for human projection and identification. Such things are necessary for him because, as he says, “I’m still not sure of the limits at which the body of the human self can stop”[xxvi] At stake here is the risk of total identification with the world, a risk entailing the collapse of the autonomous ego and a schizophrenic breakdown of delirious misrecognition. As one descends into madness, and identification through (mis)recognition increases the material horizon expands, the very horizon of our landscape becomes infinitely meaningful.

Of his portraits, and as we have already seen, Artaud wrote: “I had made up my mind to coax out those forms, lines, outlines, shadows, colors, features that […] would represent nothing and would moreover not claim to be integrated in accordance with whatsoever visual and material law, but would create, as it were, above the paper a kind of counter-figure which would be an on-going protest against the laws of the created object”[xxvii] Artaud’s portraits should not be taken as mere images, or simulations of the reality of his sitters, but rather as counter-figures, doubles, of his sitters, images made against the image of the sitter. In reading this quote now, at the end of my attempt to understand these drawings, I am struck by his insistence that these drawings represent “nothing”. These doubles ultimately seem to dissolve on the page before us.

Artaud’s goal is to remake the human body. His drawings are weapons in that task. He says: “I have the idea of putting into operation a new gathering together of the activity of the human world: the idea of a new anatomy./ My drawings are anatomies in action.”[xxviii] Anatomies here must be understood in the plural. At least three figures are at stake: Artaud himself, extending his consciousness as material force into the space of his sitter, the material force of the sitter, whether that sitter is Artaud or someone else, and our own material affect as viewers encountering the work. Anatomies here includes Artaud and us, forceful connected by means of an image.

Yet this structure itself betrays its own premises. The world still remains at one remove from us, the direct contact with our nerves Artaud sought remains confounded in an image. Our life is still not lived directly. The human face still has not found its form.


[i] Jack Hirschman, ed Artaud Anthology, op. cited, pg. 233.

[ii] Antonin Artaud “Mes dessins ne sont pas des dessins…” (1946) in Antonin Artaud Oeuvres complètes vol. XXI, op. cited, pg. 266.

[iii] Jack Hirschman, ed Artaud Anthology, op. cited, pg. 232.

[iv] Antonin Artaud “Les Figures sur la page inerte” in Rowell, ed. Antonin Artaud: Works on Paper, op. cited, pg. 42.

[v] Antonin Artaud The Theater and Its Double trans. Mary Caroline Richards (New York: Grove Press, 1958) pg. 104.

[vi] Antonin Artaud Oeuvres complètes vol. XIV *, op. cited, pg. 26.

[vii] Jack Hirschman, ed. Artaud Anthology, op. cited, pg. 169.

[viii] Antonin Artaud “Mes Dessins ne sont pas des dessins…” op. cited, pg. 266.

[ix] Letter to Dr. Ferdière, 28 February 1946. Antonin Artaud Oeuvres complètes vol. XI, op. cited.

[x] Antonin Artaud Oeuvres complètes vol. XIV *, op. cited, pg. 77.

[xi] Jack Hirschman, ed. Artaud Anthology, op. cited, pg. 233.

[xii] Antonin Artaud “Mes Dessins ne sont pas des dessins…” op. cited.

[xiii] Antonin Artaud Oeuvres complètes vol. XX, op. cited, pg. 173.

[xiv] David Sylvester The Brutality of Fact: Interviews with Francis Bacon (London: Thames and Hudson, 1995) pg. 18.

[xv] Antonin Artaud “Les Figures sur la page inerte …” in Rowell, ed. Antonin Artaud: Works on Paper, op. cited., pg. 42.

[xvi] Sylvère Lotringer “The Art of the Crack-Up” in Edward Scheer, ed. 100 Years of Cruelty: Essays on Artaud (Sydney: Power Publications and Artspace, 2000) pg. 198.

[xvii] Florence de Mérédieu Portraits et gris-gris (Paris: Editions Blusson, 1984) pg 69. Quoted in Paule Thévenin “The Search for a Lost World” in Derrida and Thévenin The Secret Art of Antonin Artaud, op. cited., pg 50.

[xviii] Stephen Barber Artaud: The Screaming Body (London: Creation Books, 1999) pgs. 57-59.

[xix] Antonin Artaud Oeuvres complètes vol. V, op. cited, pgs. 43-44.

[xx] These sentences rely on language and ideas developed by Maurice Merleau-Ponty in his essay “Eye and Mind”. See Maurice Merleau-Ponty The Primacy of Perception ed and trans. James M. Edie et alia (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1964) pgs. 159-190.

[xxi] Antonin Artaud The Theater and Its Double, op. cited, pg. 102.

[xxii] This text has been translated three times by three different people. The full passage in French reads: “Le visage humain porte en effet une espèce de mort perpétuelle sur son visage dont c’est au peintre justement à la sauver en lui rendant ses propres traits” (in Rowell, op. cited, pg 95). Jack Hirschman renders the final phrase of this passage “It’s up to the painter to save it by giving it back his own peculiar features” (Artaud Anthology, op. cited, pg. 230), while Clayton Eshleman renders the conclusion of that phrase “to save it in giving its own features back to it” (Watchfiends and Rack Screams pg. 277). Roger McKeon, for his part, renders the phrase “to save it from by restoring its own features” (in Rowell pg. 95). Each version of the phrase includes significant errors and awkwardnesses, yet Eshleman and McKeon agree, against Hirschman, that “ses” should be rendered as “its” rather than “his”. In their versions, the face is rendered with “its features” rather than with the features of the artist. This confusion is possible through the ambiguity of the French original. For this reason I have confined these remarks to a note rather than including them in the body of my text.

[xxiii] Agnès de la Beaumelle discusses this image on page 92.

[xxiv] An alternate reading of this same text and image combination might suggest that Artaud is merely recognizing himself or identifying with Jany de Ruy’s “weakness” as represented in the image. The structure of the sentence and the rest of his aesthetic philosophy, as I have attempted to reconstruct it here, hopefully place a stronger burden on the interpretation I advance in the body of my text.

[xxv] Of the 116 drawings include in Antonin Artaud: Dessins et Portraits, ten self-portraits may be classed as juvenilia while nine may be classed as mature drawings, which is to say these nine have come down to us from the work produced between 1946 and 1948.

[xxvi] Jack Hirschman, ed. Artaud Anthology, op. cited, pg. 232.

[xxvii] Antonin Artaud “Les Figures sur la page inerte” in Rowell, ed. Antonin Artaud: Works on Paper, op. cited, pg. 42.

[xxviii] Antonin Artaud, L’Arve et L’Aume Suivi de 24 Lettres à Marc Barbezat (letter of 21 August 1947) (Décines: L’Arbalète Éditeur, 1989) pg. 82.

Aesthetics and the Ideology of Design

Vanessa Kanan Corrêa and Stuart Kendall delivered this paper as part of Design(ing) Criticism, a panel moderated by Carma Gorman and Elizabeth Guffey, at the College Art Association Annual Meeting in Boston. The other panelists were Johanna Drucker, Dennis Doordan, Denise Gonzalez Crisp, and Bruce King Shey.



This paper makes two related claims. First, that writing about graphic design has historically espoused an ideology of communicative clarity, effectively ignoring the physical nature of graphic design objects and the precise nature of communication in design. The ideology of communicative clarity suggests that design objects are best when they communicate a client’s message simply and directly, without confusion, ambiguity, or delay. Yet – and this is our second claim – design objects are physical objects: they are part of a physical world of sensation. They fascinate before they communicate. In design, physiology comes before ideology and communication is secondary to seduction. Circumscribed by the ideology of communicative clarity, writing about graphic design generally fails to engage with the true form and the first function of design objects. Design writing, in other words, is rarely writing about design.

The ideology of communicative clarity is, of course, not unique to design writing. Rather, its tenets originate in the Western tradition of Platonic idealism. This paper will explore this ideology and its limits as it functions within writing about graphic design. First, we will trace its roots in Tschichold’s modernist conception of design, wherein the essence of design is conceived as “clarity”. Thereafter, Steven Heller’s short essay “The Cult of the Ugly” will provide us with a more recent exemplar of the ideology in its confrontation with postmodern design. The second section of our paper articulates the logic behind the success of this ideology: to wit, its role in marketing graphic design to corporate clients as a facilitator of communication. Yet, and as we demonstrate, even when design writers attempt to promote a role for design that is not beholden to business, as they did in the recently reissued First Things First Manifesto, they often remain bound by the ideology of communicative clarity.

The third section of our paper considers two examples of design writing that nearly escape this ideology. Both suggest a means for accessing the reality of design objects but both also remain bound and limited by the ideology in different ways. Sheila Levrant de Bretteville praises “ambiguity” as a means of requiring a reader’s thoughtful “participation” in design objects, as if all design objects, no matter how clear, were not, like other aesthetic objects, already and inherently ambiguous. And Edward Tufte praises density and dimensionality in design but only so long as these things are subservient to communication.

Our conclusion draws together remarks in support of our second major claim – that design objects are first and foremost physical objects and must be considered as such prior to being considered as carriers of communication. If design writing aspires to discuss design objects at all, it must begin with a discussion of the physical nature of design objects, which is to say with a discussion of their sensual and hence aesthetic nature and appeal. This second claim is, of course, the larger of the two. It informs all that follows. Indeed, as the basis of our criticism, it runs throughout.


The ideology of communicative clarity is rooted in the logocentric Western tradition. In his Republic, Plato puts words in the mouth of his mentor, Socrates, to the effect that the visible world is not the true world, its objects are but shadows cast on the wall of a cave. The true world lies beyond our sight, in invisible Ideas of which the shadows are mere copies. Plato’s Ideas, or Forms as they are sometimes called, present the essence of our shadowy things: they are singular – in opposition to the myriad copies visible in the material world – and they are simple, presenting as they do only the most primary elements of the thing or concept in question. For Plato, the world of Ideas, the world outside the cave, is a world of clarity and light. The world inside the cave – our world – is by contrast a world of shadow and ambiguity. Plato’s goal, as a philosopher, was to bring clarity and simplicity of both thought and expression into our world of dark ambiguity. And his work was convincing enough to have influenced the following twenty-three hundred years of civilization. Nietzsche described it as the “worst, most durable, and most dangerous of all errors”.

This is obviously to suggest Platonism – and indeed all idealism – has had its critics. We need not list them here. Our point, simply put, is that they are certainly not to be found among writers about graphic design. Jan Tschichold’s 1928 manifesto The New Typography is a seminal text in graphic design writing and it is permeated by Platonic idealism. “The essence of the New Typography,” he writes, “is clarity.” Tschichold argues that the historical concerns of typography and graphic design with “beauty” and “art” had, until the early 20th century, obliterated the essential quality of typography. Tschichold aligned himself with well-known modernists such as Adolf Loos, Le Corbusier and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy by championing the abolition of the “ornamental”. Ornament was to be replaced by “clarity of appearance”. Clarity, for Tschichold as for Plato, requires that one reduce the communication under consideration to its essential elements, that if be stripped, in other words, of ornament, anything that might distract a reader from the intended message.

In his impassioned treatise on the “battle between the old and the new,” Tschichold so enthusiastically and convincingly took up Plato’s mantle that contemporary design writing continues his search for clarity and his will to reduce communication to its essential elements. What were these essentials for Tschichold? His text and its illustrations demonstrate that we are not simply to replace the old ornaments with the new geometric and abstract forms of the New Typography. Rather we are to understand how the removal of decoration will expedite the reader’s comprehension of the message. “It is essential to give pure and direct expression to the contents of whatever is printed, just as in the works of technology and nature, ‘form’ must be created out of function.” He notes “extraneous additions [i.e. ornament] can never produce the pure form we demand today.”

Tschichold outlines the New Typography in an argument for pure form – form unencumbered by the naiveté of decoration. “Today we see in a desire for ornament an ignorant tendency which our century must repress. When in earlier periods ornament was used, often in an extravagant degree, it only showed how little the essence of typography, which is communication, was understood.” For Tschichold, the urge to decorate is akin to bad design.

Arguing against ornament, he further elaborates the difference between the tenets of the New Typography and the historical use of embellishment in type and graphic design: “It is absolutely necessary,” he says, “to omit everything that is not needed. The old ideas of design must be discarded and new ideas developed. It is obvious that functional design means the abolition of the ‘ornamentation’ that has reigned for centuries.” For Tschichold, forms follow the “laws of nature” and “are drawn towards greater clarity and purity of appearance.”

By emphasizing  the aspect of communicative clarity in design, Tschichold turns his back on the aesthetic nature of design objects and on the aesthetic decisions that are required to make them. Speaking of the typographic arts as historically decorative, he claims, “Problems of formal aesthetics (choice of type, mixture of typefaces and ornament) dominated considerations of form….today we have moved considerably closer to the recognition of its essence….” Tschichold lays the groundwork for future calls to clarity and for the rejection of everything that seeks to foreground the materiality of the design object. He argues, “Our age is characterized by an all-out search for clarity and truth, for purity of appearance….We require from type plainness, clarity, the rejection of everything that is superfluous.”

Tschichold’s The New Typography, for good or ill, can be historically celebrated or dismissed as a paragon of modernist design sensibility. Tschichold himself moved beyond it in significant ways in his later writing. Yet, while much of the modernist spirit and style has passed away, the ideology that informed The New Typography and its approach to design has not. Graphic design as a field is indistinct from “communication design”. Communication Arts is a premiere journal in this area of design. Robin Kinross’ book Modern Typography (2004) presents a history of typography guided by the ideology in question: the entire field thereby subsumed within and organized by the ideological frame. Perhaps the most significant recent “theoretical” approach to design is that of “Information Design”, an approach that prioritizes empirical research into the problems of communication and legibility, rather than into design as a whole.

All of this in mind, it is unsurprising that the ubiquitous design journalist Steven Heller should adhere to the ideology. In a representative piece, “Cult of the Ugly”, Heller observes with horror a world of design in which “order is under attack and the forced collision of disparate forms is the rule”. For Heller – who is perhaps the most visible, current avatar of the ideology – ugly design is “the layering of unharmonious graphic forms in a way that results in confusing messages”. Heller’s emphasis is on the clarity and orderliness of communication: confusing design is quite simply bad design.

The value of design is relegated to its function as a means of communication, which, it must be said, seems reasonable. What would be the use, after all, of a design object that did not communicate? What client would pay for such design? What else could or should be the priority of design if not communication?

Even in light of the general acceptance of these claims, Steven Heller’s unexpectedly vitriolic and vehement militancy in favor of the ideology astonishes. His terminology alone might give any designer pause, exploiting, as he does, the language of the pulpit coupled with the rebuke of the parent. In “The Cult of the Ugly”, non-communicative design results in “confusion,” “Frankenstein’s little monsters,” “confusing messages,” “artlessness,” “excesses,” “ambiguity and ugliness” and even, amazingly enough, “sin.” This barrage of “questionable aesthetic output”, Heller argues, is the product of “too much instinct and not enough intelligence or discipline”.

Ugliness, it seems, undermines the primacy of the mind over the body, of civilized restraint over animalistic instinct. Heller’s imperious condescension in the face of primitivistic “experimental” design reaches a fevered pitch by the end of the essay: “Ugliness,” he asserts “is valid…when it is key to an indigenous language representing alternative…cultures.” It is invalid when it becomes a “style that appeals to anyone without the intelligence, discipline or good sense to make something more interesting out of it.” Indigenous alternative cultures, however politically correct, do not seem to possess the rationality required to identify their own aesthetic failings, failings seen “clearly” in the bright light of popular design culture. The practitioners of “ugly” design reject the “verities” of balance, harmony and communication, in favor of irrationality and excess. Significantly, Heller’s piece ignores the genuinely aesthetic issues proposed by the problem it investigates: why, for example, is “ugly” design appealing?

Heller is, in short and putting it mildly, against density and for clarity in any form. As he is still the most visible – if not in fact hegemonic – presence in graphic design writing, one can only wonder at the extent of the damage his influence has perpetrated.


The ideology of communicative clarity is itself useful: It is an ideology that helps design function, which is to say to sell itself in the corporate marketplace. Pragmatic, no-nonsense business leaders rely upon graphic designers to help them sell their products. And designers rely on business leaders for business.

The products of design are necessarily diverse and it is important to keep this diversity in mind. The products that benefit from graphic design include almost everything under the sun: every package, every book or newspaper, every document, every street or building, public or private. Graphic design guides us down highways, lures us into stores, and seduces us into selecting one product over another from crowded shelves. It helps us assemble our goods and tells us who and how to call when we need a doctor. Graphic design is there in the fine print on medical and insurance forms and its there for our lawyers after the fact. It is in every image and text: literally on every street corner. Products, in other words, can be frivolous or functional; they can be insignificant or imperative to our continued health and happiness. They can be public works or pieces of private enterprise. Graphic design saturates our world.

But design doesn’t work alone. Designers work for clients who hire them to give shape to messages. Clients have something to say and designers have the expertise to communicate that message to its intended audience. The process gets sticky if a client thinks that the designer has more on his or her mind than the message at hand, if the designer seems to be adding something to the message or misdirecting it. The designer’s job is simply to carry the client’s message over into design. It is not to change that message. The designer’s job is to communicate the message, or so it would seem. The ideology of communicative clarity takes flight from this nest. If a designer cannot promise to communicate a clients message and cannot promise to do so with utter clarity, why should the client hire that designer?

The promise of communicative clarity is a promise spoken in the language of pragmatic commerce. But it is not a promise made in keeping with the practice of design. Messages can be conveyed in myriad forms. Design selects and fixes those forms. Its mission is less to communicate than to catch the eye of its reader and to hold it. Communication happens only after a designer has captured someone’s attention. Communication is secondary: it is a by-product of design. This is not an argument for sensationalistic design. Sensationalism has its place but so does sobriety. No one style will function under every circumstance. Nor can one step into the same style with the same effectiveness twice.

The ideology of communicative clarity functions in the designer-client relationship as a means for designers to calm their client’s qualms about the process. But unfortunately it also effectively elides the true nature of the design process and the true contribution of design to the client’s enterprise. Design writing and hence designers themselves lack a language in which to speak about the actual nature of their contributions to commerce and culture.

This however has not stopped design writers from criticizing the relationship between design and commerce. Most of this criticism mistakenly blames the relationship itself for its problematic products. The much discussed First Things First Manifesto and its double – “2000” redux edition – offers a now classic example of this mistake.

The redux edition of the Manifesto shouts from the rooftops: “Consumerism is running uncontested… We propose a reversal of priorities in favor of more useful, lasting, and democratic forms of communication – a mind shift away from product marketing and toward the exploration and production of a new kind of meaning.” Note the key words: the proposed design will be “useful” and “lasting”, “communication”; the manifesto proposes a “mind shift” toward the “production” of a “new” kind of “meaning”.

Naturally the “manifesto” – itself the simulation of a manifesto published at the end of the heroic phase of modernism – didn’t amount to much. But it didn’t really propose much either. Certainly nothing like a real revolution in the way that designers think about either design, consumption, or the relationship between design and culture. The Manifesto condemns consumption, while nevertheless suggesting that consuming some things is better than consuming others. The argument itself is garbage.

The design the signers attack “manufactures demand” for tennis shoes, coffee, and dog biscuits, among other things; as if consumers’ dogs shouldn’t be eating biscuits. The design they promote includes “cultural intervention”, “charitable causes”, “social marketing”, all lumped under the heading of “information-design”, and said as if promoting dog biscuits was in some way not a “cultural intervention”.

“Culture”, for the signers, seems to reference primarily the rarified world of the Fine Art tradition and its attendant marketing apparatus, as if Fine Art needed design to come to its rescue. (Which of course it does. Would we even see or care about Fine Art if not for the wall of design that surrounds it? And, conversely, would Fine Art exist today without the visual ecology of design off of which it parasitically feeds?)

It’s hard to argue with the signers’ support for “charitable causes”. Good designers are good people. They do morally upright work. They are generous: givers not takers. But moralism obscures the class issue here. Six figure salaries and social connections too often help self-select charitable designers.

In the manifesto, “information-design” is design at its most pure: pure communication, pure information, pure meaning; no ornament, no frivolity, no dog biscuits. We shouldn’t mention it but manufacturing demand for high quality dog biscuits that are actually good for dogs might in fact contribute to the good of all.

“Consumerism … running uncontested”, again the hysterical cry. But consumerism, individual and social consumption, includes all kinds of things. Dogs consume biscuits. Cars consume gas. Readers consume books. Museum go-ers consume Fine Art. Believers consume the sacred. Book designers contribute to our culture of consumption just as much as other designers do. Information designers produce information for consumption. Ideas – philosophy, religion – need design too.

First Things First redux envisions a socially useful designer, a producer who contributes communication to culture. To design this designer, they propose a “mind shift”, as if designers were thinkers first and foremost, rather than the educated sensibilities that they are. As in Plato’s allegory of the cave, the manifesto proposes “lasting” design (implicitly denigrating ephemera; which is to say topical, timely design). It mirrors, inversely, the truth.

Interestingly, and as another measure of the ideology under consideration, Michael Beirut was among those who wrote critically of First Things First redux, but he did so without violating the ideology of the piece. After mocking the manifesto, he concludes hopefully: “Designers actually can change the world for the better by making the complicated simple and finding beauty in truth.” For Beirut the problem with the manifesto consists in its utopian suggestion that designers retire from the market that sustains them. His own proposal is that designers can change the world by working in it and by pursuing the age-old ideals of truth and simplicity. Beirut’s proposal is just as Platonic and ideological as that of the manifesto. We are not arguing that he is wrong, only that his position, dependent as it is on “truth”, is circumscribed by the ideology in question.


This is not to say that the general tenets of the ideology of communicative clarity have not had their detractors along the way. Sheila Levrant de Bretteville’s essay, “Some Aspects of Design From the Perspective of a Woman Designer” (1973), for example, tackles the problem head on, although from a somewhat limited feminist perspective. De Bretteville questions – and rightly so – “the desirability of simplicity and clarity.” Her analysis regards the urge to simplicity as an outgrowth of fascistic elements operating within modernism and, by extension, the male-dominated design field of the early 1970s. “Control,” she argues, “almost inevitably operates through simplification.”  The call to simplicity, from de Bretteville’s perspective, underscores the prevalence of gendered and debilitating social roles – typically devaluing the ‘female’ experience –  that ultimately, for her, culminates in the polarization of men and women, work and home, the rational and irrational, participation and exclusion.  Straightforward messaging,  particularly when there is something to sell, limits participation.  Observes de Bretteville, “Control is undermined by ambiguity, choice, and complexity, because subjective factors in the user become more effective and the user is invited to participate. Participation undermines control” [her emphasis].

All well and good. Her observations about the reified roles for men and women, the reinforcement of stereotypes through rigid iconography and so forth are right on the money. And arguing against the totalizing urge of modernism is a legitimate complaint, but, as we’ve noted, talking about clarity – or its opposite – is not talking about design. De Bretteville has effectively executed the same rhetorical move as the shapers of FTF 2000; that is to say, her position is simply an inversion of the prevailing dogma. Inserting ambiguity, she argues, will provoke participation from the viewer. But every act of reading requires participation, whether it is presented clearly or otherwise. Nor need participation be necessarily critical, whether the message is ambiguous or not. More importantly, and too our point, what of the cases of such extreme ambiguity that the viewer finds it simply too much effort to engage at all?

De Bretteville has her eye on the ball, but unfortunately it’s the wrong ball. Her argument is posed as if pointing to some essential quality about design, although in fact it stays on the surface without actually discussing that surface. Graphic design can inspire and engage – in short be “good design” – whether it is clear or ambiguous. Ambiguous design can serve the rationalistic corporate master just as easily as modernist design, and ambiguity can sell a product just as quickly to an unthinking audience as the clearly crafted hard sell.  If it’s not clarity or ambiguity that motivates the viewer’s engagement with a piece, then what is it?

Edward Tufte’s writings on graphic design offer a partial answer. Like de Bretteville, Edward Tufte argues against simplification in design. But unlike her, he praises density and dimensionality, complexity in short, rather than ambiguity. Despite this emphasis, Tufte doesn’t escape the ideology of communicative clarity. His writing does however open a discussion of aspects of design that have gone largely unnoticed.

Tufte’s Envisioning Information, for example, “celebrates escapes from flatland … Revealed [through] design strategies for enhancing the dimensionality and density of portrayals of information … [His] investigation yields general principles that have specific visual consequences, governing the design, editing, analysis, and critique of data representations. These principles help to identify and to explain design excellence – why some displays are better than others.” “Enhancing dimensionality and density”, for him, means increasing the number of dimensions that can be represented on a surface and the density of the data represented per unit area. For Tufte, graphic should be rich and complex with information.

Tufte’s bête noir is “Chartjunk”, the visual clutter of the poorly designed object. When design announces itself, either as ornamentation or through clunky incompetence, design is chartjunk. This notion recalls Heller’s diatribe against the “cult of the ugly” and Tufte justifies it with a quotation from modernist Paul Rand on the ideal invisibility of design. Chartjunk impedes interpretation and therefore should be eliminated.

In contrast to this notion, one must wonder if design should aspire to an ideal of invisibility. To put the point strongly, isn’t all design fundamentally ornamental? In Plato’s terms, isn’t all design a mere shadow of the Idea it communicates? Similarly, what’s wrong with design if it is? Might we not be better off if design announced itself vigorously as such, the way “special advertising sections” call themselves out?

Tufte’s project is prescriptive and what it prescribes is dimensionality and density, what one might call “intensity”. In Tufte’s analysis, some displays or designs are better than others and those designs are better because they are more intense – rich, in his reading, with information. But dense design is not only rich with information. It’s rich with visual complexity, with visual pleasure. Significantly, the pleasure of Tufte’s books is not only in the information contained therein: we don’t need to be able to understand his Japanese train schedules to enjoy them.

We are not claiming that Tufte is disinterested in communicative clarity: far from it. His project as a whole intends to reform graphic design so as to intensify its communicative means. Along the way, however, and by reforming those means, he has shifted the ground of the discussion about graphic design, away from mere clarity, toward intensity.

Tufte dreams of a world without chartjunk: without junk or garbage, a world without waste; a world of perfect utility. But for Tufte, eliminating chartjunk is – and this matters – only the beginning. The goal of Tufte’s analysis is ultimately to enhance the dimensionality and density, the intensity of design. The best design is rich with information, densely and intensely presented. By valorizing dimensionality and density, Tufte casts the ideology of communicative clarity at least partially aside and steps into the realm of the senses. In this way, he provides a marginally positive model for design criticism.


Plainly stated: design attracts: it fascinates before it communicates. The pleasure of design is thus both before and beyond the realm of mere communication. It is before communication because the pleasure of design precedes the reader’s grasp of the design object’s message. It is beyond communication because design objects continue to fascinate us long after the products they advertise or the messages they convey have ceased to be culturally comprehensible. Poster collections worldwide testify to this fact. But how can we begin to understand it?

By focusing entirely on communicative effectiveness, on clarity or on a certain lack thereof, design writing rarely if ever engages with the formal nature of design objects. Swiss typography, for example, in typical appreciations, emphasizes a minimal, rationalist approach to communication: But what of the physical nature of its objects? What of the relationship between these objects and the culture(s) in which they were produced? What of our own cultural relationship to these styles? An alternative, aesthetic history of design could be written: one in which the aesthetic value of objects unfolds within a simultaneous history of design and culture.

Aesthetics, etymologically speaking, is the science of sensation, a study in the sensual nature of objects, which is to say, of their form. While the sensual nature of an object, image or text refers to our physiological response to that object, to its tactility or the demands and rewards it offers our eyes (and minds), aesthetic criticism embraces that physicality and endeavors to locate its value within our world; to say, for example, precisely how we respond differently to leather-bound, letter-pressed books and to newsprint advertising mailers. Aesthetic criticism tells us how an object is what it is; how it functions; what are its parts and how they are related; and where, within culture, the object finds its supporting discourses, its sources of reference, relevance, meaning and value.

Aesthetic criticism is equally sensitive to objects and to culture, to the efforts of the creator and those of the consumer. Art criticism – prior to the rise of Cultural Studies, prior to Visual Culture – was primarily aesthetic criticism. It is ironic that aesthetically grounded art criticism has failed to embrace graphic design objects, given that graphic design creates the substantial majority of our visual culture today.

As we’ve seen, journalists writing about graphic design and graphic designers themselves have historically and consistently avoided the problem of aesthetic criticism, and hence the critical function in general, by espousing (or arguing against) the ideology of communicative clarity. The ideology of communicative clarity avoids the problem of aesthetics and restricts discussions of design to rational, utilitarian ends. It permits designers to easily and persuasively delimit the design process for clients; clients who pay the designer’s fees and are often motivated by quantifiable ROI. Yet design objects remain aesthetic objects, sensual, physical objects embedded in a cultural context. Design criticism must be aesthetic criticism, a criticism that would locate design, through formal evaluation, within its cultural context. It would tell us how design functions, what it means to us, and why we care so much about it. Design criticism would tell us what is beautiful in our visual and sensual experience of everyday life (and not only in our museums). This criticism would be written for designers, for their clients, for critics and thoughtful readers of all kinds, and of course, for consumers.

No design magazine currently carries a column on aesthetic criticism. Even a passing use of the word “criticism” on any of the fashionable design blogs results in a reactionary confusion of critique – Kantian, metaphysical, aesthetic – with mere negativity. The mass of contemporary writing about design is in fact not criticism at all, and it does not aspire to be. Much of it is mere homage, advertisement or appreciation; that it is imprecise, un- or misinformed, shallow in its enthusiasm or narrow in its range is permitted by its avoidance of aesthetics and of the critical function in general.

Perfectly utilitarian products (whether objects or information) are interchangeable, but design creates the sense of uniqueness. The Platonic idea of the letter ‘a’ is not as important as what a specific, typographic letter ‘a’ does on the page. The power of design is in its specificity. What is lasting in the design object is precisely that aspect of the object that eludes utility, namely, its design. Graphic design, at its best, is visual but it is also tactile, singular but multivalent, culturally embedded but also timeless.

Roland Barthes’ Aesthetics of Everyday Life

A quote from Jessica Helfand, from her blog, Design Observer, February 2004.

“To me, the goal [of education] is to groom students whose comfort level with theory is such that they emerge from a degree-granting program able to articulate their own theories. Isn’t the point of a good education, [she asks] any good education — to ultimately think for oneself? In this view, it doesn’t really matter if the student reads Thorstein Veblen or Thornton Wilder. […] ‘Readings’ of such theorists as Roland Barthes […] Walter Benjamin […] Derrida and Debord […] are now so thoroughly picked-over that I suspect any substantive yield on new visual thinking is basically negligible. And for designers in general (and design students in particular) isn’t the goal, in the end, to actually say/do something that hasn’t been said/done before?”

Much can be said: the phrase “one’s own theory” indicates that Helfand hasn’t read Barthes very closely (in particular the “Death of the Author”). But there are other problems: Have educational institutions ever been devoted to the cultivation of originality?

Problems aside, the quotation illustrates a common, persistent and unfortunate approach to Barthes. He is labeled a “theorist”, implicitly rejecting theory as antithetical to pragmatic action; he is linked with writers whose work shares little in terms of orientation or content with his own; and he is rejected outright, a priori, as “picked over”. Helfand finds him useless for “yield on new visual thinking”. Is this an accurate, fair or useful assessment?

While Roland Barthes did write about visual culture, he certainly did not write for the specialized purpose of generating new visual thinking. Helfand is faulting apples for not being oranges.

Barthes wrote cultural criticism informed by the then emerging field of semiology. And his corpus evolved. He is quite specific in his observation that Mythologies, for example, was superceded by his later approach to cultural artifacts.


All this in mind, what should we do with Mythologies on its 50th anniversary? How should we read Roland Barthes? Who should read him?

I read Roland Barthes because he is helpful to me in a way that he can, I think, be helpful to all of us – designers and design writers, cultural critics, creators, and indeed everyone interested in living his or her life most fully. Barthes can help us develop an aesthetics of everyday life and this is particularly necessary right now.


An important shift occurred in the culture of capitalism over the last decade and a half or so; a shift from the hegemony of objects to the hegemony of brands. In our time, the most successful multi-national corporations are less concerned with manufacturing products than they are with manufacturing brands. We might call this the ephemeralization of capitalism. Baudrillard calls it the perfect crime.

A brand is the “core idea” of a corporation. It is not the ideology of a corporation (corporations generally share the same capitalist ideology). Rather, and as Roland Barthes might observe, a brand is the myth of a corporation.

In No Logo, Naomi Klein observed that companies now see themselves as “meaning brokers” rather than product producers (21). Building a brand means tending a meaning, a core idea, rather than tending a thing, a product. This is not to say that products have disappeared from our stores, only that products are less important in and of themselves than they were once perceived to be. Products today are carriers of brands. And as such they take their place alongside corporate messaging as it occurs in advertisements, on websites, in press releases and public statements of all kinds. The products or objects weigh no more or less heavily than these other bearers of corporate communication.

Thus we can observe a general decline in quality among mass produced objects of all kinds – quantity, in short, changes quality – alongside a concurrent turn toward unique or designer products. Capitalist production thrives on similarity, mass production, replication; while consumer culture thrives on the sense of a singular experience – even when that singular experience occurs en masse. Consumers are moved to purchase specific things. And in certain cases, consumers want products that bear the trace of a human maker; less a craftsman these days than a designer. As corporations cease to be manufacturers, they cease to be interested in their manufactured goods; yet consumers are drawn to objects that reveal their derivation, that bear their history on their surface as a quality, as complexity.

Paradox, in short, abounds. No matter how divorced corporations become from physical objects – from commodities and manufacturing facilities – they remain inexorably tied to them. Brands must be carried by products of some kind: and advertisements too are objects; even websites are things. The sensual, the physical, simply will not disappear. Things may lack the dense complexity that they once possessed but they will not go away. And of course design itself is another device for the marketers. Design manufactures complexity, creates density, intensity.

The conflict here is one between the abstract, ideal or mythic sphere, and the aesthetic. Corporations strive to enter the eternal and inevitable realm of myth, yet they remain tied to the contingent realm of the senses, the realm governed by aesthetics. Roland Barthes can help us understand and negotiate both sides of this equation, though I will focus on the aesthetic side.


Aesthetics has become a bad word in the academy today, and a misunderstood one. The word conjures aestheticism, the movement of art for art’s sake; and not just art, of life for art’s sake. Aesthetics also recalls an outmoded approach to art objects: a formalism that separates art objects from history, society, ideology, and psychology: a method that critics spent most of the twentieth century trying to reject.

Those critics were trying to reject the aesthetic nature – the formal, material, and sensual nature of art objects. And indeed formal analysis has all but disappeared in contemporary writing about aesthetic objects. It is completely absent from publications on graphic design. More forcefully stated, the objects themselves have disappeared from many contemporary approaches to culture.

This is unfortunate. Aesthetics is the science that tells us how things have meaning or value for us. The term derives from Greek words meaning both sense and sensation. An aesthetics of everyday life offers us a interested thick description of all the things and activities of our world; an epistemophilia broad enough to embrace all things; an evaluation of existence.

Such an evaluation should be as valuable to designers, and their bosses, as it is to consumers. Design and consumption are two sides of a coin. (Art making, the creation of representations of life, aspires ironically enough to a condition beyond both commerce and everyday life.) My proposal is neither that “everyone is a designer” nor that the “consumer is the creator”. Designers and consumers meet in a marketplace that is itself a contentious decentered community.

The notion of an aesthetics of everyday life has several histories. Michel Foucault’s late search for the use of pleasure and the care of the self; his description of the hermeneutics and technologies of the self. Henri Lefebvre’s Marxist sociology of the everyday, the last bastion of individual freedom: a social sphere that shrank faster than he could describe it. The Situationist’s abortive revolution in everyday life; their research into new behaviors, objects and urbanisms.

As often as similar notions have been proposed, they have gone nowhere. Indeed, the last 150 years have seen critics and creators of all kinds return again and again to the objects around which everyday life circulates only to propose, like de Certeau, a new description of those objects or of our relationship to them. The point, however, is not simply to describe our relationship to objects, but to change it.

Discourses proliferated around objects during the modern era: Husserl’s phenomenology; the Objectivist school of modern American poetry; the Marxist denunciation of the commodity form as spectral; the field of cybernetics.

Much if not in fact most modern art and literature can be read as an engagement with the problem of the object in industrial culture: the Arts and Crafts movement, Art Nouveau, Suprematism, Der Stijl, the Bauhaus, Duchamp’s readymades, Surrealist found objects, Neo-dada, pop art, minimalism. What an anxiety fraught relationship. What a contentious 150 years.

Against this background of more or less continuous disturbance in our relationship with objects, certain moments stand out as moments of intensification, of deepening anxiety; moments when consumerism reached new heights: the late nineteenth century, the 1910s, and of course the 1950s. This last being the decade of modernization par excellance, the decade of modern objects, the decade of a convulsive shift in everyday life, particularly in France. Kristin Ross makes this point marvelously in her book Fast Cars, Clean Bodies.

Roland Barthes wrote his “mythologies” between 1953 and 1959 for a reason. These were years of rapid modernization. The ground was shifting beneath his feet and all around him, a new culture was lurching toward its Jerusalem: one of automobiles, durable electronics and appliances, washing machines and refrigerators; one of television and magazines illustrated with photographs in color.


Of course Barthes was not alone in his turn toward what we now call popular culture. Raymond Williams and Stuart Hall were doing something similar in England; as was Reyner Banham, from a completely different, celebratory perspective.

Barthes, Williams, and Hall, each in their way, gave form to a new phase of oppositional culture, a new kind of ideological criticism in the Marxist vein. Unopposed to popular culture they were opposed to its administrators. But this was an ambivalent opposition to some extent, at least in Barthes’ case. His Mythologies were often as creative, as nuanced in language and imagination, as they were critical. Criticism isn’t supposed to be fun.

In fact these writings waged war on several fronts. Intended to foster critical consciousness, to debunk the myths of ideological thinking, they also extended the territory of culture itself to include popular or low culture. And they can be read, like the writings of a latter day Balzac, as a description, occasionally even a loving description of that culture.

And here we are now, fifty years further down the road. A Popular Culture Association now holds annual meetings and publishes an academic journal, devoted to popular rather than high culture. It is an academic discourse as rigid and exclusive, as isolated as any other, simply inverted. This is of course sad and ironic for many reasons.

Already in 1965 – forty two years ago – in her essay, “One Culture and the New Sensibility”, Susan Sontag rejected the distinction between high and low culture as “shallow”. For Sontag, there was only one culture and it was culture. For Sontag, the assault on the citadel of culture – Barthes’ assault, Banham’s assault – had been completed: the new sensibility of the 1960s – the 1960s ! – would be pluralistic – high, low, scientific, and aesthetic – and keyed to a new understanding of pleasure, or it would not be (Against Interpretation, pgs. 297 and 302). Her writings, like Barthes’, have been intellectual bestsellers: Was she wrong? Or, if not, how did the Popular Culture Association miss her message?

Barthes of course never really intended to extend the definition of culture. For him, high or low, culture was culture and it remained culture. He was interested in extending the field of semiology into a means for the ideological analysis of both linguistic and non-linguistic sign systems.

In regard to non-linguistic systems, as he says in Elements of Semiology, “There exists a general category of language/ speech which embraces all the systems of signs; since there are no better ones, we shall keep the terms language and speech, even when they are applied to communications whose substance is not verbal.” (25) The fashion system, the food system; Baudrillard’s system of objects. A small corner of this initiative has recently been isolated from the whole and re-branded under the faddish name visual rhetoric. The rhetoricians, like the pop culturalists, would benefit from a return to sources, a reading of Roland Barthes.

“Semiology,” for Barthes, “is a science of forms… It may well be that on the plane of ‘life’, there is but a totality where structures and forms cannot be separated. But science has no use for the ineffable: it must speak about ‘life’ if it wants to transform it.” In the same passage, he goes on to say that “a little formalism turns one away from History, but a lot brings one back to it.” (Mythologies 111-112)

Barthes’ semiology is distinct from others in its love of the signifier, its love of forms, the things of the world. Barthes’ tremendous originality was to take semiology out of the archive and into the street; to turn away, if only for a little while, from the culture of representation, from art and literature, toward the realm of everyday life. Formalism foundered in the archive but found itself in the street; at least for Barthes, for a little while.

I am tempted to suggest that Barthes was interested in what I call culture beyond representation. I’ll suggest this only as a spur to further thought, a reminder of the work that remains to be done. For the era of representation is indeed over. We have entered a new age of icons, a space of sensual signs; a non-place of constant and energetic referral; where social space including actual spaces, from cityscapes, shopping malls, and highways to the internet, functions as a network for the expenditure of energy; mixing memory and desire in the production of intensity, pleasure, jouissance. If Roland Barthes was the Moses of this promised land, Jessica Helfand and her ilk have already become its Pharisees.


My proposal: Read Barthes’ Pleasure of the Text, substituting the word object for the word text throughout. Then fold that reading back into Mythologies.

Imagine an aesthetic (if the word has not become too depreciated) based entirely (completely, radically, in every sense of the word) on the pleasure of the consumer, whoever he may be, to whatever class, whatever group he may belong, without respect to cultures or languages: the consequences would be huge, perhaps even harrowing (Brecht has sketched such an aesthetic of pleasure; of all his proposals, this is the one most frequently forgotten). (Pleasure of the Text 59)

Pleasure for Barthes takes two forms: the pleasure of cultural systems and the pleasure of what Bataille would call transgression, the disruption of that culture. The pleasure of transgression provokes what Barthes calls jouissance, which is often translated as “bliss” though ecstasy is more accurate.

The pleasure of culture is the pleasure of situating objects and experiences, everything really, within a system of understanding, a discursive order, which is to say within culture. Objects many be multivalent, saturated with culture; they may participate in several discourses at once, be polysemic. Cultural pleasures too may be ideological pleasures. But this is not the moment to repeat a critique of that kind of pleasure.

Ecstatic pleasure for Barthes disrupts stable systems of discourse; it tears objects from the fabric of the world, elevating them through the power of fascination, obsession, fetishism.

In the case of cultural pleasures, we are talking about the pleasures of communication, which is always to imply those of community, and beyond that of utility or functionality. Objects which announce and fulfill a function, communicate a message to a community of interpreters.

In the case of jouissance we are talking about singular pleasures. Those in which an object becomes dislodged from its functional milieu, shorn of its communicative value, isolated through a singular act of perception.

Both kinds of pleasure can of course be latent in the same object; though some objects may be constructed in such a way as to tend to provoke one or the other type of appreciation.

This framework of interpretation is at once absent from design discourse and crucial to it. The discourses of design are dominated by the utilitarian ideologies of functionality and communicative clarity. Ironically, they know nothing of the pleasure of their objects.

Barthes describes pleasure most succinctly in the preface to Sade/ Fourier/ Loyola. Let’s substitute the words designer, object, and design for the words author, text, and writing.

Nothing is more depressing than to imagine the object as an intellectual object (for reflection, analysis, comparison, mirroring, etc.). The object is an object of pleasure. The bliss [or ecstasy] of the object is often only stylistic: … expressive felicities… At times the pleasure of the object is achieved more deeply…: whenever the object transmigrates into our life, whenever another design (the Other’s design) succeeds in designing fragments of our own daily lives, in short, whenever a co-existence occurs. The index of the pleasure of the object, then, is when we are able to live with the designer. (See Roland Barthes, Sade/ Fourier/ Loyola 7-9)

For Barthes, living with an object of design is not a question of representation. “It is a matter of bringing into our daily life the fragments of the unintelligible that emanate from a object we admire (admire precisely because it hangs together well)… Our daily life then becomes a theater whose scenery is our own social habitat…”

Barthes had proclaimed the death of the author only a few years previously, but here he clarifies his meaning.

“The pleasure of the object also includes the amicable return of the designer. Of course the designer who returns is not the one identified by our institutions…; he is not even the biographical hero. The designer who leaves his object and comes into our life has no unity; he is a mere plural of ‘charms’, the site of a few tenuous details, yet the source of vivid novelistic glimmerings, a discontinuous chant of amiabilities, in which we nevertheless read death more certainly than in the epic of fate; he is not a (civil, moral) person, he is a body.”

The “novelistic glimmerings” Barthes mentions in the most difficult portion of this passage are “biographemes”: traces of a subjectivity that cannot be reduced to a singular subject. These traces include stylistic markers as well as everything else that might signal the presence of a designer’s guiding hand in the creation of an object.

Design discourse in our time urgently needs concepts such as these. The design fields are fields in which authorship is difficult to determine: designers work at the behest of clients, whose ideas they serve; and, within their firms, designers follow the dictates of creative directors and art directors, or are themselves creative directors or art directors.

For twenty years now, design journalist Rick Poynor has attempted to promulgate an interpretation of design as Art based on an outmoded model of Fine Art, a model in which the designer is viewed as a creator in the Romantic vein. Like Helfand, Poynor should read some Roland Barthes.

To return to our discussion: the pleasures of the object are manifold: they are cultural and anti-cultural, social and individual, communicative and beyond comprehension. Barthes describes the pleasures of the Eiffel Tower – to take only this one example from his work – as “polyphonic.”(The Eiffel Tower and Other Mythologies 17) The Tower, he says, “attracts meaning”, but remains “ineluctable, because it means everything”; it is an “infinite cipher.” (The Eiffel Tower and Other Mythologies 4-5) But it is not only a sign, it is an object of interaction, indeed a field of multiple engagements, of many uses. The bliss of the Tower is the “bliss [or ecstasy] of sensation.” (The Eiffel Tower and Other Mythologies 11) “What is significance? It is meaning, insofar as it is sensually produced?” (Pleasure of the Text 61)

The object effects the uneasy commingling of abstract and sensual value; of sense and sensation. Some objects do this more so than others do. Yet the theory of pleasure does not propose an hierarchy of objects based on the pleasures they afford: more is not always better. The task set before the designer is to determine the degree of pleasure an object might most appropriately offer.

Barthes discusses the pleasure and personality of the object is his myth on toys. “Current toys are made of a graceless material, the product of chemistry, not of nature. Many are now molded from complicated mixtures; the plastic material of which they are made has an appearance at once gross and hygienic, it destroys all the pleasure, the sweetness, the humanity of touch.”( Mythologies 53-55.)

Wooden toys on the other hand are more directly natural and therefore maintain a child’s contact with trees, tables, and the floor. Most importantly, wooden toys change with time, they “live with the child, alter little by little the relations between the object and the hand. […] Henceforth, toys are chemical in substance and colour; their very material introduces one to a coenasethesis of use, not pleasure.”

This reading of toys clarifies Barthes’ suggestion that “our daily life [will become] a theater whose scenery is our own social habitat.” Enjoying an object, indulging ourselves in its pleasures, is a means of enfolding or entangling ourselves in the life of our objects and of enfolding our objects in our own life. The fold or tangle here is a theater, a circuit for the exchange, referral and deferral of energies.

Our search for the pleasure of objects is not intended to create a new law for the creation of objects – a modernist dictate as to how and why objects must be created or used. Rather, it intends to return us to the enjoyment of objects – to their idiosyncrasies, their manifold densities, intensities, and destinies – and thereby to encourage our aesthetic enjoyment of everyday life. (57)

In The Pleasure of the Text, Barthes asks: “What relation can there be between the pleasure of the [object] and [its institutions]?” And answers: “Very slight. The theory of the [object] postulates [ecstasy], but it has little institutional future: what it establishes, its precise accomplishment, its assumption, is a practice … not a science, a method, a research, a pedagogy; on these very principles, this theory can produce only theoreticians or practitioners, not specialists.” (60-1)

Specialists – Jessica Helfand, Rick Poynor, the Popular Culture Association, Visual Rhetoriticians et alia – will always miss the pleasure of objects and misunderstand Roland Barthes. Luckily, they’ve left the fun for the rest of us.

The Design that is not One: Engendering Design Discourse

The design that was not one: engendering design discourse

This is an exercise in applied theory: a test, an experiment. I’m asking a relatively simple question: To what extent might feminist theory be helpful in understanding graphic design practice?

The title of this paper derives from – parodies? – Luce Irigaray’s famous essay “This Sex Which Is Not One,” first published in French in the 1970s.

The text of my abstract on the other hand proposed an engagement with Hélène Cixous’ notion of écriture féminine, a notion most famously elaborated in her manifesto “The Laugh of the Medusa”, first published in French in 1975.

These two pieces are not so distant from one another that we cannot attempt to read them together, to commingle them.

Why these two? Why only these two? Might we not have set out from other classic texts of feminist theory? Are these two necessarily the most fecund for our purposes simply because they are among the most famous?

In avoiding these questions, I will admit a certain naiveté on my part, a certain ignorance and inexperience with feminism. These are not the faults of a dogmatist, nor those of a specialist. I am speaking today as an amateur, a non-specialist. Thus there may be questions that I might raise that I cannot hope to answer, issues related to the topic of feminist design that I cannot address and about which I can only speculate.

This ignorance will be peculiar in that the materials under consideration are themselves so well known. Yet it is also appropriate to them. I am not speaking as a “master” of these pieces.

This caveat in mind, let’s return to my textual sources. They date from the 1970s, which we might now look back upon as an “heroic” era of feminist struggle, not the only heroic era, surely, but one among them.

That we may look back suggests a certain distance from that era, and perhaps from its concerns and struggles. This distance is part of our topic today. To what extent were the struggles of that era the struggles of a different generation? As always, we must be attentive to this historical difference. If the struggles that produced these texts were the struggles of a different generation, how might the texts still be generative for us, for our concerns, for generating design discourse today?

If, on the one hand, yesterday’s problems still remain problems today, why should we return to yesterday’s (theoretical) solutions? On the other, if yesterday’s solutions really were solutions, if they did effect change in their day, what might we make of them today? Are these texts artifacts from a by-gone age, like armaments kept in a museum, or might they still have something to teach us, something that we haven’t yet heard?

Our task then: the re-inscription of a certain theory of writing as a theory of design, attentive to the status of that re-inscription as repetition or redirection.

Female/ Feminine/ Feminist

Toward this end I propose a schematic historical account of women in graphic design and graphic design writing, a theoretical exposition of Hélène Cixous’ notion of écriture féminine and of Luce Irigaray’s notion of the “sex that is not one”, and a discussion of feminist design as it has been presented by one design writer in particular, Maud Lavin. A presentation in three parts then.

My paper bears a subtitle: “Engendering design discourse”. This phrase is programmatic, the articulation of a purpose, but it may also serve as a first premise. Gendering and engendering are not at all the same thing. In what follows I appeal to feminist theory to substantiate the claim that these two terms are in fact mutually exclusive. To the extent that one is interested in gendered discourse one is not interested in engendering discourse. One irony of écriture féminine is that it defines an open field rather than a closed one.

Insofar as design is celebrated as the authoritative creation of a singularly heroic creator, whether male or female, and promoted as a singularly successful vehicle of clear communication, it is representative of the repressive phallogocentric Western tradition.

More significantly still, I think, by reading graphic design through écriture féminine, I propose a means of subverting the dominant discursive (I won’t say critical) approach to graphic design in our time – subverting the ideology of communicative clarity – and thereby shifting critical debate about graphic design and its place in contemporary culture. Put plainly, the dominant discursive approach to graphic design in our time stipulates that graphic design objects be understood primarily as circumscribed by a communicative function. This ideology is, of course, an extension of the phallogocentric tradition that écriture féminine, among other strategies of poststructuralist cultural creation and critique, subverts. As a theoretical model for the creation and interpretation of design objects, écriture féminine encourages us to view graphic design objects as inherently open, multiple, and heterogeneous, rooted in physical materiality but signifying much more than can be summarized in the “messages” they communicate.



Before we begin our theoretical exposition we should recall the history of women in graphic design, however schematically.

Fortunately, this task has already been undertaken on several occasions by feminist design historians. Maud Lavin, for example, produced a portfolio of women in design in the mid-1990s that we will return to. Already at that time, a decade ago, Lavin could report that women outnumbered men in graphic design. This fact is obscured to some extent in the standard design history books due to their focus on highly influential or iconic works – masterpieces in the traditional and problematic sense of this term. I suggest however that the history of women in graphic design is only partially obscured by the traditional approach of history books as one can in fact find numerous women designers among those celebrated for work produced during the past thirty years, since the 1970s in particular when women entered the design fields, among other fields, en masse.

It would be foolish to attempt an exhaustive list of prominent women in graphic design but it would be similarly foolish to deny that a number of women should be considered among the most significant leaders in the field at the present time. Paula Scher, April Greiman, Katherine McCoy, Lorraine Wild, and Ellen Lupton are only a few of those who spring immediately to mind.

Another measure of the presence of women in graphic design can be read in the contents of the “Looking Closer” series of volumes collecting recent and “classic” writings about graphic design. The series is edited by a small group of primarily male designers, all closely linked to the New York based American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) and Allworth Press. Five volumes have appeared thus far. Volume three collects ninety years of “classic” design writings from 1893 to the 1980s. Of the fifty seven chapters, five including contributions by women: less than 10%. Volume two, by contrast, collects writings from the mid-1990s and sixteen of its forty-three contributors were women; almost 40%; a phenomenal increase.

Yet one might nevertheless wonder why – if women were more numerous than men in the field by the mid-1990s – this number was not higher. And one might offer several generous but facile reasons for this. Many of those women might have been relatively new to the field and still too junior and therefore too busy to spend time writing about it. Or women might have been too busy balancing their responsibilities as workers, wives, and mothers to have free time to write. Maybe they were busy simply doing other things. After all, why write? None of these answers is quite satisfying.

I maintain unequivocally that there is such a thing as marked writing; that, until now, far more extensively and repressively than is ever suspected or admitted, writing has been run by a libidinal and cultural – hence political, typically masculine – economy.         Hélène Cixous, The Laugh of the Medusa, 249

Put forcefully, and speaking to the main point of this paper, writing might fundamentally be a masculine activity, particularly writing in and for the public sphere. Cixous proposed écriture féminine as a diagnosis of this situation and as a solution to it.

Cixous’ argument is not only that men dominate the libidinal, cultural, and political economy in which writing – including writing about design – appears, but that that economy is fundamentally a masculine, phallogocentric economy.

To conclude our historical survey, we might observe that women are visibly present in contemporary graphic design practice but that they have not yet been spoken for.



The first paragraph of The Laugh of the Medusa

I shall speak about women’s writing: about what it will do. Woman must write her self: must write about women and bring women to writing, from which they have been driven away as violently as from their bodies – for the same reasons, by the same law, with the same fatal goal. Woman must put herself into the text – as into the world and into history – by her own movement. The future must no longer be determined by the past. (Cixous 245)

The Laugh of the Medusa is a manifesto for écriture féminine and as such it contains a fair amount of polemic. Some of Cixous’ claims fly in the face of good philosophy more so even than she intends. She intends to dismantle nothing less than the entirety of the repressive phallogocentric Western tradition, but her polemic occasionally reverts to the kind of essentialist thinking that is her primary foe. I would rather not get bogged down accounting for these faults of militant rhetoric. The essential point is that Cixous’ thought challenges the binary thinking that is the basis of Western civilization, and indeed of many other civilizations as well. Cixous’ project, in other words, continues a tradition of radical cultural critique, a tradition she shares with many male and female writers.

The phallogocentric tradition can be summarized through a series of binary oppositions that form its core values. The terms on the left are praised, those on the right denigrated.

mind / body
sacred / profane
logos / pathos
communication / ambiguity
idea / instance
presence / absence
activity / passivity
sun / moon
culture / nature
day / night
father / mother
head / heart
intelligible / palpable
function / form
center / margin
man / woman
masculine / feminine
phallus / vagina
heterosexual / non-heterosexual
white / black
speaking / writing
high / low
masterpiece / minor work
homogeneity / heterogeneity
unity / diversity
singular / plural
art / design

Cixous’ work is feminist to the extent that it extends this critique to areas of specific concern to women.

Cixous’ challenges these oppositions not simply by proposing to shift the emphasis from one term to the other, though this does occasionally occur. Rather, she undermines oppositional thinking in general by proposing medial terms and writing in such a way as to undermine any certain emphasis on one pole or another of the binary opposition.

Where masculine writing, in her model, is logical, argumentative, discursive, certain of itself, clear and unambiguous, écriture feminine or writing in the feminine is on the other hand at once potentially the opposite of these things and, for this reason, capable of undermining the very duality itself. Ecriture féminine is an anti-logos weapon (Cixous 250)

Whereas masculine writing is a writing of the mind, écriture féminine is writing with the body (Cixous 251). As such it is radically heterogeneous and plural. It is plural at least in part because the mind is part of the body. As every body is distinct, every instance of this writing reflects the radical uniqueness of each body. Masculine writing aspires to the denial of the material instance of its enunciation. Writing in the feminine aspires to include that materiality along with its message.

Writing in the feminine must be understand on the model of a both / and proposition – as both material and communication – and as such as a means to inspect the process of communication itself (Cixous 254).

Similarly, writing in the feminine should be considered bisexual in the sense that it is based upon the non-exclusion of difference and of the multiplication of the effects of the inscription of desire (Cixous 254). Writing in the feminine affirms desire beyond the phallic signifier, beyond the genital, beyond the fetish, beyond the singular form.

Here we are proximate to Irigaray’s notion of “This Sex Which Is Not One”.

Woman does not have a sex. She has at least two of them, but they cannot be identified as ones … her sexuality, always at least double, is in fact plural. Plural as culture now wishes to be plural?             Luce Irigary, This Sex Which Is Not One, 103

The labia are twofold and do not themselves exhaust or complete the organs of a woman’s pleasure. A woman has sex organs just about everywhere. She experiences pleasure almost everywhere (Irigaray 103). A woman, in Irigaray’s description, is much like Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of a desiring machine: a networked conduit for the desire of the other.

All of this in mind, I think écriture feminine offers us a helpful model for thinking about graphic design. Graphic design objects are always already plural. They communicate information by giving visual pleasure. They are the material form of ideas. They always send mixed messages. They are writing with the body. Graphic design gives multiple forms of pleasure: the pleasure of the thought, the pleasure of the instance, the pleasure of allusion, for graphic design objects generally signal or point to something beyond themselves. Graphic design cannot be understood as representational, to be evaluated in isolation from the networks of information and event which support it. Indeed to appreciate design as a pure formal construct, as if it were Fine Art, is to misunderstand and under-appreciate that design. In this sense, and again as in écriture féminine, graphic design is always available for the desire of the other. It aspires to be meaningful for you rather than in itself.

I will not attempt an exhaustive survey of these similarities…



Maud Lavin’s “Portfolio: Women and Design” in her book Clean New World presents the work of several female designers who are, she claims, “known for their self-generated work and / or authorial voices”(109). She cites a survey conducted by Martha Scotford to substantiate the notion that “women designers are more likely to use design for personal, political, or social agendas,” but allows that “pressures of time and money make most design practices client-service dominated… [while] only a small subset of designers [male or female]… make ‘personal, political, or social agendas’ a high priority”(109).

These statements beg at least two key questions: Just what exactly does Maud Lavin mean by the word “design”? And what ideology or hierarchy of cultural values is at work in her portfolio of women in design?

Before we answer these questions, we should admit that Lavin’s piece probably wasn’t intended to bear the cultural freight that I’m granting it. Though published in hardcover by The MIT Press, and supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, it is really only a loose collection of anecdotal statements from a more or less randomly gathered group of female designers from the 1990s. Only the almost total absence of genuinely critical writing about graphic design elevates it to a status worthy of our current attention. By taking it more seriously than it was meant to be taken I am liable to be considered a bully beating a straw-man.

Graphic design, for Lavin, seems to refer to any creative endeavor which combines words and images. Elsewhere in her writing she subscribes to a more traditional definition of design but in her treatment of women and design she loosens that definition substantially. And I’m not sure we can be satisfied with this loose definition of design. The main problem it poses is also bound up with the ideology at work in Lavin’s list. She explicitly praises “self-generated” work with an “authorial voice”, particularly work that prioritizes “personal, political, or social agendas”. These are her values. Martha Scotfeld’s survey findings were thus pleasantly convenient. Women designers make these kinds of works more often than men do, so the survey says.

Author-ity is a cultural construction.

Lavin complicates the notion of authorial voice later in her piece. “Since virtually all [design] work is for a client,” she says, “… the concept of a lone creator so popular in the art world rarely applies.” Thus her notion of “authorial voice”, which accounts for the unique stamp of a particular design sensibility even when the design might have been produced by a team of designers and at the behest of a client (110). This approach is similar to Roland Barthes’ statements about authorship in his famous essay “The Death of the Author.”

To my mind, Lavin’s admission that virtually all design work is client-driven undermines her interest in and emphasis on “self-generated” or personal design work. Why, in short, focus so much attention on self-generated or personal work if that work represents only an almost very small portion of the design that is produced?

Lavin’s complication of the notion of authorial voice also challenges this focus on personal work. Why focus on personal work if the very notion of authorship is inappropriate to the work under consideration?

Barbara Kruger is among the most problematic figures included in Lavin’s portfolio, so we can take her inclusion and her work as an example.

Is Barbara Kruger a designer? She works with images and texts. But her work is rarely client-driven, particularly in the strong sense of this phrase, which claims that the work must communicate a client-generated message to an intended target audience. Kruger’s work poses banal pseudo-philosophical questions in a flat and potentially ironic manner intended as a pastiche of media culture. Her project reached its apotheosis, I think, when “I am because I shop” was printed on shopping bags, her activism effortlessly integrated into the spectacle. So much for cultural critique, for political or social messaging.

Is the work personal? Not really, not in the expressive sense of this term. But does it have a strong “authorial voice”? Yes, in that Kruger developed an highly characteristic, high impact but low fi style. Anyone, in other words, could make a Kruger by aping her style.

Art in service is not art at all.

All of this in mind, I am personally more comfortable calling Barbara Kruger an artist, or better yet a “postartist”, than calling her a designer, feminist or otherwise. Her art is, of course and in its way, art in the service of an idea. And art in service, according to Kant, is not art at all.

Yet graphic design is almost always in service to something. It is by nature client driven. Its purpose is to convey a client message to an intended target audience. Kantian categories don’t seem to apply.

Perhaps Kruger is a designer after all. But if so, she is an a-typical one and not particular good (because her work is almost completely opaque). All of this suggests that, to the extent that design critics, like Maud Lavin, focus their attention on self-generated or personal work, they are not really focused on design.

What then of feminist design? Feminist design, I think, must be understood as graphic design done for a client who might be described as motivated by feminist concerns. Undoubtedly such design exists, some of it good, some bad.

The crucial question however is whether or not a feminist designer effect can social change by working for a client whose project is itself anti-feminist. If this were in fact possible, design would indeed be a powerful social weapon.

Many factors inhibit such a fantasy from becoming reality. What might, for example, bring such a situation about? Why would an anti-feminist client hire a feminist designer in the first place? If such an occurrence did come to pass, then we might also assume that the client might already be predisposed toward listening to that designer and thus perhaps also to changing the nature of the project. The scenario is pretty far fetched. Clients hire designers they like and trust and designers thrive when working with clients who respect them. The designer-client bond is a communal one.

The confusion surrounding all of these terms – designer, client, community – and around the very nature of design itself – as a specifically material form of communication – suggests that design writing has a long way to go before it understands its object and purpose, in particular as these relate to the history of art.

Put bluntly, the question of feminist design is probably the wrong question to ask about design. By wrong I mean that it is not the most significant question that we might ask and, worse, that it is a misleading question. It is a question that prioritizes the personal, when design is by nature communal, that prioritizes the political – the ideational and the ideological – when design is explicitly material.

The question of feminist design is thus in many ways the opposite of that of écriture féminine. It seeks to reduce design history to another episode in the history of representations, a history that has closed and that for many reasons has been superceded by design itself. The question of feminist design seeks masterpieces, enduring works among the ephemera of design culture. It seeks to replace the gynophobia of the phallogocentric tradition with an equally hegemonic gynophilia.

If their goal is to reverse the existing order, even if that were possible, history would simply repeat itself and return to phallocratrism, where neither women’s sex, their imaginary, nor their language can exist.            Luce Irigaray, This Sex Which Is Not One, 106.

Insofar as design is celebrated as the authoritative creation of a singularly heroic creator, whether male or female, and promoted as a singularly successful vehicle of clear communication, it is representative of the repressive phallogocentric Western tradition.

Fortunately, this celebration has very little to do with design practice. Design practice is, like écriture féminine, always already plural, always already open, always already communal, always already heterogeneous in content and context.

Writing is precisely the very possibility of change, the space that can serve as a springboard for subversive thought, the precursory movement of a transformation of social and cultural structures.             Hélène Cixous, The Laugh of the Medusa, 249

We might replace the word “writing” in this quotation with the word design. Design is precisely the very possibility of change, the space that can serve as a springboard for subversive thought, the precursory movement of a transformation of social and cultural structures.

Along these lines and retrospectively, we might reread the history of graphic design as the history of a repressed material culture, a community under erasure, an unconscious history of our culture. Such a history of graphic design has yet to be written. If we continue to fetishize the personal, the political, and the masterwork, it won’t be.

Select Bibliography

Maud Lavin, “Portfolio: Women and Design” in Lavin, Clean New World: Culture, Politics, and Graphic Design (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2001).

Jean-François Lyotard, Postmodern Fables (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997).

Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivron, eds. New French Feminisms: An Anthology (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press; New York: Schoken Books, 1980). Cited by author and page number.

Andy Goldsworthy: An Aesthetics of Sustainable Living

Andy Goldsworthy’s work and working methods show us how to live in a sustainable way. His works are not informational or argumentative. They do not seek to sway or persuade; they don’t bully or badger. They demonstrate a way of living, a creative approach to places and things and to the human community that has and continues to shape the places and things of this world.

Slate Arch

As valuable as science and journalism can be, human beings are creatures of heart as well as of mind, and they rarely respond well to rational arguments or even to carefully presented and compelling information. We are unlikely to listen to anyone who tells us what to do until they have shown us what to do first. Pascal claimed that human beings need both reason and that which exceeds reason in order to live. He took that as justification for his faith in an abstract ideal, but I find it equally relevant to Andy Goldsworthy’s works, works that have the power to turn our thoughts back to the essential realities, the things of the world. In the end, rationality is only ever as useful as the myth it serves, and our winded civilization is a civilization in need of a new myth. Andy Goldsworthy’s work interests me because I think it may be part of one.

I could begin by situating Goldsworthy’s work within the Fine Art tradition – situating it, in order words, in relation to site-specific art or process art or performance art or earth art – but I would prefer not to do that. I’d prefer to try to shift the ground of the discussion. I don’t want to talk about Goldsworthy as an art historian or an art critic might, but rather in another way. Toward this end, and as I’ve suggested, I’d like to approach his work as a model and demonstration of sustainable living rooted in his creative relationship with the things of the world.

The creative act in Goldsworthy’s case can, I think, be divided into three phases, which I will call “gathering”, “transformation”, and “dissemination”. Before saying what I mean by these terms, and as a way of approaching them, I will describe Goldsworthy’s work and working methods briefly.

Goldsworthy’s art is, at this point, I think very familiar: from museum and gallery shows, public and private collections, nine or so volumes of photographs and writings, numerous smaller catalogues, and – perhaps best – from Thomas Riedelsheimer’s marvelous, full-length documentary, Rivers and Tides.

Goldsworthy works with things, manipulating objects found in nature, with the occasional aid of very civilized technologies (like cranes or bulldozers), to create works that are hybrid forms in several ways. They are hybrid forms because they mark points of intersection between nature and culture, and they are hybrid forms because they are often animated by several discourses of understanding or evaluation.

Goldsworthy’s stone cairns, for example, are first and foremost stone, and the artist must conduct a kind of dialogue with the stones in order to create them. He speaks of understanding the stone better and better, and he means not only stone in general but the specific types of stone found in a specific place as well as the specific stones used to create an individual cairn. Significantly, stone cairns are not just piles of stones. They reach back into the economic, political, and religious history of places. Stones and piles of stones have long been used – all around the world – to mark property lines and to locate a sacred place. More abstractly, stone cairns are potent and satisfying visual images: symbols. They resemble eggs, seeds, and pine cones, and thus participate in a range of symbol systems at once specific to and in some ways common across distinct cultures.

Goldsworthy’s works are, in general, symbolic without being representational. They are emotional without being expressive. They are personal without being private. They are immediately recognizable as his own, yet they are also so common that in some cases they might pass as natural forms and in others as the remains or reminders of some ancient civilization.

Goldsworthy’s works often locate the intersection of nature and culture: the place where humans dwell. This place is a wild place because it is a place where the culture of human making must submit to the necessities of nature (the laws of physics). But this place is not “the wild”, not nature in a pure sense, and it would be uninteresting to Andy Goldsworthy if it were. Where man is not, nature is barren, according to William Blake, meaning that human beings create the value of the world.

Goldsworthy tries to make at least one work of some kind every day. Some days he can’t. Some days he can make several works in quick succession. The result is a stunning volume and diversity of aesthetic production. The work must be approached as individual pieces but also as a series or perhaps several discontinuous series of works stretching across the artist’s life. Connections and distinctions can be observed at many levels as he makes stone cairns one day, a stone wall the next, ice cairns thereafter, and a clay wall after that. From an art historical point of view, this daily creative practice is almost intolerable in that it yields so much material. How can it all be appreciated? How can it all be catalogued? How can it be preserved? Of course these might be the wrong questions to ask about Goldsworthy’s work, much of which is ephemeral in the first place.

Goldsworthy’s works aren’t meant to last, or rather, more precisely, they aren’t meant to last in the way that our civilization likes things to last. The things themselves do not last. Even stone, as Goldsworthy observes, changes states. It can be a liquid or a solid at different points in the life of the stone. Our civilization and in particular our museums and art speculators would like to see a more reliable promise of stability, of solidity, a more certain promise of persistence. But Goldsworthy works with nature, with the nature of things, to illustrate change. His wooden spires are meant to decay, to rot and collapse, to be consumed by the forest that surrounds them. His cairns crumble with the force of wind and settling soil. His ice sculptures melt. His most ephemeral works include shadow images of himself, images made of frost or rain, that fade in moments. And more ephemeral still: billowing clouds of sand, soil, or snow, thrown in the air, photographed by a friend. The works pass like water in a river.

Modern civilization has of course always had an unstable if not outright hostile relationship to the ephemeral nature of things, and this goes for modern art as well. The Fine Art tradition proposes itself as a secular search for the absolute. In the absence of the sacred, the objects of Fine Art, at least, might persist. Other commodities too cut themselves off from the stream of change: they sit on shelves with the aura of eternity, or at least suspended animation.

Goldsworthy’s works though, don’t, and they won’t. They speak to their own origins, ambitions and ends. A given work by Andy Goldsworthy thus participates in a distinct and distinctly broad range of temporalities or temporal horizons. In doing so his works stand in stark contrast to the modern tradition of the new, the tradition of the now, the modern notion of “making it new”.

Goldsworthy’s works echo moments in the lives of their materials: they account for the nature and history of the stones or leaves or ice. And they evidence Goldsworthy’s knowledge of that history, of those things. As an artist, he is also a geologist and an anthropologist, among many other things.

Though ephemeral, his works may peak – if that is not quite the word – at a certain point, or they may be considered as peaking at a certain point – the cairn is perhaps a peak moment in the life of a stone, for example – but they continue on. The stones do not disappear. They pass on to another phase in the life of the stone.

Goldsworthy digs iron ore from a riverbed, grinds the small stones into a red powder, which he gathers with water into a paste, and returns to the river with a splash captured on film. Which is the most significant moment in the “work”? What exactly is the work? It is in every moment: in gathering the ore, in grinding it into powder, mixing it into paste, throwing it back into the river and even beyond that, in the influence Goldsworthy’s gestures have had on the destiny of that piece of stone.

Gathering, grinding and throwing the ore in this example recalls the terms that I would like to use to describe Goldsworthy’s processes in general: gathering, transformation, dissemination. Goldsworthy takes a kind of responsibility for all three moments. These moments are moments in the life of the stone and they are moments in his life as well. The moment of transformation may be the most satisfying to him as a creator, and the passage from transformation to dissemination may be the most satisfying to his viewers, but none of the moments is indispensible and none of the three takes precedence over the others. In some works, the moment of gathering takes far more time than either of the other phases: his snowballs in summer installation is a good example of this. In other works, the moment of dissemination is most complex and complexly satisfying. Sometimes it takes years, as in the case of the spire he recently erected in the Presidio near where I live: the 200 foot tall tower of trees surrounded by saplings will itself decay over years as the trees grow around and ultimately over it. In the future, the work will be a memorial marked by absence amid presence whereas now it is a presence amid absence. Which of these moments matters most? Which moment is most true to the work?

In the gathering phase of a work, Goldsworthy gets to know a place: its geology, its ecology, its economics, its religious and social history. He works best, he says, in his home place, because he knows it best, and this makes sense and is right. When he travels, he says, he sees differences – differences between his home and the new place, between the new place and other places – but he struggles to see change, the changes that take place slowly over time. And change is the substance of his work. His works mark time, they record change. If he cannot perceive trajectories of change at work in a place, he cannot record that change. This is the challenge he faces when he travels. And this is the challenge we are all facing. How well do we know our home places? The geology and ecology of our places? The history of animal and human interactions within these places? If we don’t really know these things, how can we know what it is to live in a particular place, to grow food there? How can we know what the land will bear? What will last and what will pass away? What I am talking about here is of course a sense of bioregionalism. Sustainable life is life rooted in a place, attendant to the changes that have and will occur in that place. Goldsworthy’s works encourage us to find a place for ourselves, and to dig in.

In the transformation phase, Goldsworthy effects change. He conjures symbols from a site, markings of moments, passages to futurity from the past lives of a place. Though Goldsworthy works with nature, with natural objects, his work is always human work, the work of human hands, the work of culture. He brings objects or colors or shapes into startling juxtaposition. He brings stones, dirt and mud into the museum. He highlights the nature of a place and often the work of nature by creating contradiction: a splash of natural color in an unnatural place, an unlikely arch or object, an unexpected gathering of wood or leaves.

In a sense, Goldsworthy works by folding nature back onto or into itself, rearranges it, makes natural objects of seemingly unnatural things. But they aren’t unnatural, they are only unexpected, or only unexpected there, at that place, in that time: like snowballs in summer.

The revelation of his work is the revelation of what is already there: the secret life of things. If his work is a gift, it is the gift of things: a gift he gives to the things, with the things, for the things. He freely admits that the things give infinitely more than he can. His addition – his specifically human contribution – to the world is one of analysis and application, of extrapolation and extension: he looks at the world, discerns its potential and, in a way, makes the most of it.

I’m not saying, “makes the most of it”, in a sarcastic or ironic way. I mean it. The world of things can be more, with human help. Joel Salatin, proprietor of Polyface farm in Virginia, is talking about the same thing when he observes that grass grows more if a cow eats it. A carefully managed pasture really is more than untended wilderness. Ecosystems exceed themselves when careful, thoughtful management helps them to do so.

The point is obviously not to destroy the material, the things, let alone the ecosystem itself. Transformation effects a change that has a future, a change that reinvests its energies into the stream of life, that adds to that stream.

At the other end of the spectrum, Rush Limbaugh once observed that the best use of a tree is to make a baseball bat. Trees of course create the air we breathe, they process – and thus help clean – the water we drink, they help prevent erosion and provide cover for the diverse creatures of the forest. Habitats are complex and while the pleasure of baseball is simple. Baseball bats do one thing and one thing only. Eventually the game is over and everyone goes home. The game provides a brief suspension of life, a moment isolated from the complex connectivity of the world. Goldsworthy’s works, on the other hand, encourage us to step into the stream of life, to follow the slow course of things, the multiple pasts and myriad futures potential within the objects of the world.

The dissemination phase of his work is its gift. It is the moment Goldsworthy himself lets go. The work – a thing in the world – continues to evolve. Ice melts, clay dries, wood rots, walls wear with the seasons, stones collapse. The tide sweeps some works out to sea, casting driftwood or stones far and wide. Where and when does Goldsworthy’s work really stop? The elements of the work – elements themselves – give and give; they continue to unfold along lines – vectors or trajectories – shaped by Andy Goldsworthy’s hands but free of them as well.

Ecosystems are not discrete systems. They are macro-systems composed of many micro-systems that open onto and feed one another. A rotting tree is food for a forest and a forest feeds a region of the globe. Goldsworthy’s works function in a similar way. Sometimes they actually include trees that rot. But the metaphor is a good model for all of his works. His works aren’t meant to persist but they are meant to last, if lasting means having a permanent effect on the course of the whole of our world, not abstractly, but immanently, radiating out along specific vectors, from the vortex that is the work. Like the effects of eddies in an ocean, which are often too small to be measured large-scale, the effects of his works are only discretely measurable yet cumulative.

The myth of the work – which is its greatest gift, and which I have endeavored to trace – is this model of sustainable living, of gathering, transformation and dissemination, of measured analysis and immanent impact, of total involvement with a place over an extended period of time: past, present, and future. Goldsworthy’s works gather the past and present of a place, shaping it for multiple futures. This is life divested of abstraction, refocused on the objects of the earth itself and on our place on that earth.

To gather is to take stock, it is to dig into a place, to assess its geological, ecological, sociological, religious and economic histories. To transform is to shape these histories, to add something of one’s own time and energy to them and to help them to be more of what they are. Dissemination means letting go, but it entails a recognition of one’s on-going and in a sense endless impact on the world.

Living in the way this model proposes begins by asking questions about the things of our world, the objects that surround us in daily life: where did these things come from? How are we using them? And what will happen to them once we have finished with them? Waste, as William McDonough says, is food. Everything is at once ephemeral and, in another way, endless.