Writing or Art? Mel Bochner’s “LANGUAGE IS NOT TRANSPARENT” (1970)

Is it art? Is this the sort of art one passes by impatiently as not really art?

Notice that it has no conventional images in it, such as, say, a Madonna with child. Where Mary and the baby Jesus might have been represented in medieval art, we’ve just got words on a black background. Doesn’t that make this, not visual art, but writing? This seems like something more Protestant and iconoclastic than Catholic and iconic.

But let’s be patient here and look. Linger a bit. Let this curious thing speak.

The piece is titled, “LANGUAGE IS NOT TRANSPARENT.” It consists of “chalk on paint on wall,” and is 72 x 48 inches–the size and width of a large man. This means that, should you stand before it in real time, the experience might be akin to facing a headless man with broad shoulders.

Mel Bochner is the artist. He executed it 46 years ago, in 1970, when he was thirty years old. As of this writing, in 2016, he’s still alive, living in New York, aged 76, hopefully with his own head still about him.

Now, if Mel Bochner had been born in 1340 instead of 1940, and this was a depiction of a Madonna with child, we might start our reflections on his work by noticing signs of luster pointing to the divine (gold leaf in the Mother and Son’s holy halos, etc.)–but we’re in the 21st century, and so, to access what he has done here, maybe our first move ought to be, not consultation with a theologian and fashioner of plated gold, but with a psychotherapist and neuroscientist.

The seven primal emotional systems in the mammalian brain. I don’t have any psychotherapists or neuroscientists lying around my library, but what I do have is a book co-written by one of each: The Archaeology of Mind (Norton 2012), by Lucy Biven (a psychotherapist) and Jaak Panksepp (a neuroscientist). According to their book, there are seven primal emotional systems that evolution has placed in the mammalian brain. Rats have these systems, cats have them, humans have them, and they are:

(a) the seeking system (sometimes called the reward system, which manifests in affect terms as desire; enthusiasm; curiosity; excitement to discover the truth and learn or get new things)
(b) the rage system (manifestations of affect: aversion; anger; being “pissed off”)
(c) the fear system (anxiety)
(d) the lust system (horniness; activates the opioid reward system)
(e) the care system (tenderness; love; empathy)
(f) the panic system (loss, grief, mourning, frustration, loneliness, sadness)
(g) the play system (joy, imagination)

We have other brain systems, obviously, such as homeostatic systems regulating hunger, thirst, and breathing. And we have executive functions in our neocortex, giving us powers of speech and distancing skills (irony, mindfulness), but these seven systems constitute the subcortical foundation for our affective (emotional) states. They make up the template or basic alphabet on which we (and other mammals, and, to some degree, birds) construct emotional experiences. It is these that potentially get stimulated when we look at art (or anything else, for that matter).

So the first question we might bring to Bochner’s, “LANGUAGE IS NOT TRANSPARENT,” is this: What primal emotional systems are being activated when we view this piece of art? Let’s view it another time before answering.

6 out of 7 ain’t bad. Bochner’s “LANGUAGE IS NOT TRANSPARENT” makes us everything but horny. It doesn’t activate our lust system, but the other six seem to get some stimulation.

So let’s start with the brain’s seeking system. Clearly, the sentence in the art itself–LANGUAGE IS NOT TRANSPARENT–is inviting us to look again, and so it activates, if we’re willing to accept its implied invitation to linger with it, our system that attempts to locate sense and meaning. And the words, in puzzling us, implicitly invite us to play with them (activating our play system).

So that’s two emotional brain systems activated: seeking and play. But the sentence also primes us to loneliness, an aspect of our panic system, as when a little bird cries out to its absent mother. To say that “language is not transparent” suggests that real, direct contact and communication with others is, at best, problematic. There’s always going to be something between us and others: interpretation. We are cut off from direct contact with our ground of being and others, as is this piece of art. The gap between floor and sentence, message and other, language and art, content and style, matter and manner is the same ironic gap that is between the fingers of Adam and God on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel–and, like Bochner’s black paint, our lives bleed into this gap.

And two of the words–NOT and PARENT–and the affix TRANS–all in close proximity to one another on a wall (which is a cold and hard thing, large and resistant to pushback), subtly activates our anxieties–our fear system–surrounding change (trans) and the Freudian superego (parents and the prohibitions implied in not).

And speaking of parents, though the artist could not have anticipated this effect on 21st century viewers, who doesn’t get a twinge of contemporary gender and sexual politics firecrackering off of the word “transparent”? Language is not (your) trans-parent. Language is not like your contemporary ideal of the kind, transgender fairy godmother that you can know intimately, understand, reliably work with, and loves you exactly for who you are. Instead, language’s manic shifting confuses you as to who you are; it’s more ephemeral, distant, unpredictable, disappointing, out of control, inhuman, and non-nurturing than you might want.

Notice also that Bochner’s letters are in caps–suggestive of shouting–but in a childlike or adolescent hand, written in chalk on black paint, implying both a chalkboard and school (and all its forms of abuse, authority, and mystification). These caps (and caps also suggest bullets) subtly trigger our empathy for youth oppressed by adult authority and feeling pent-up rage, as in Pink Floyd’s “The Wall.” So the caring system is also being activated, as well as the rage system.

Miracle, mystery, authority–and the language delusion. So a child, we are made to imagine, was forced to stand at a place like this and write words implying clarity, permanence of meaning, and certainty, under the command of an adult–and now this is the child’s retort as an ironic adult artist: “LANGUAGE IS NOT TRANSPARENT,” and therefore not eternal; not transhistorical. It is subject to interpretation; it does not speak for itself. The clarity sought, for instance, at the chalkboard in grammar exercises, with their right and wrong answers, renders the spell of language and its vulnerability to evolution invisible. “Language is not transparent” becomes a trope for the child in the crowd who says (or writes as graffiti on a wall), “The emperor has no clothes.” The clarity and stability of achieved meaning is actually as mortal and illusory as the rest of us, and will be undone by space and time.

Bochner’s piece might thus be read as a summation of what was digested by philosophers and cultural observers over the hundred years from about 1870 to 1970, when advertising took over walls across the world’s urban areas: words are not special, confined to places like libraries and the Bible, but prolific, cheap, and manipulative; they are not the conveyors of real essences and genuine presences (communication of the Word made flesh), but illusory essences and presences. Their meanings are slick; slippery. Like Blake’s image of British imperialism in his poem, “London,” words can be seen as part of the violence of history, running like blood down palace walls.

My God, why have you forsaken me? So what is written on the wall (as in, “It is written,…”) is actually dependent on something that is coming undone. The condition for the existence of the message itself–in this case, the black sheet, similar in form to an 8.5″ x 11″ sheet of paper–has been pierced and torn, and is now bleeding away. Like Christ, the Word made flesh, it’s broken and hanging.

Bochner’s work is a crucifixion.

And a metamorphosis. For the writing on the wall, O Nebuchadnezzar, has taken on a new life beyond the control of its creator. It has become a soldier in Nietzsche’s moving army of metaphors; a Frankenstein; Kafka’s insect, perhaps a millipede. Notice that the dripping streaks function as stalks accompanied by hints of little feet.

Night of the Living Dead. So though we have a crucifixion here, this is not also a resurrection in the sense of life overcoming death. This broken thing with writing tattooed on it is rather a zombie; the zombie of modernism, carrying its central and sobering insight that language is not transparent. It is the culminating insight of 100 years of advertising and rethinking the nature of words in the light of Darwin, relentless time, and the death of God. What we have here is not a bleeding Lazarus come from the tomb, but a bleeding Don Draper, advertising man. This art is fresh from Plato’s cave, declaring that we have all been under the spell of shadows, and things are not what they appear to be, as when Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello says cryptically, “I am not what I am.” This trans-parent is not your mother, but Jacques Lacan’s inhuman Other, the Real. It does not transport one to truth, but to an aporia, an impasse of speech and writing–which means an impasse to the confident progress of one’s own life. It is the inhuman Other, unleashed from the plain intention of its author into a life of its own; a life in the realm of uncertain time.

And in gazing on it, it’s entering your space.  Look again.

Does transparency make for visibility or invisibility? Notice that one cannot see through the black of the image, and this reinforces the claim of the sentence written on the body of it, that language is not transparent. Yet the words themselves are in white, cutting through black, thereby exposing, in their very inscription, the white wall behind it. One can see through the words to the white wall. So wouldn’t this make the words written here akin to a Cretan saying, “All Cretans are liars”? Have we reached yet another aporia, an impasse, akin to a sign or message one might encounter in a Kafka novel?

Here’s the conundrum: Can words really achieve direct contact with that to which they are supposed to point–or not? The words here, after all, wave off their own transparency, even as one is looking right through them to the wall behind.

So which is it? Are words transparent or not? And the very term transparency is itself perplexing, for it suggests something at once present to the eye and invisible. When one says, “I am being transparent,” is one making a claim to being visible or invisible? Transparency is a “thing” (persumably), yet not exactly there. You can see through it–like a ghost, like God–and so it is not there–and there, at the same time. A ghost bird. Like the Holy Spirit.

So is Bochner’s image now a counter to the dove at Jesus’s baptism, suggestive of a black wing proclaiming a counter-gospel of the Word, climbing upward, trailing blood?

The 1. And let’s not ignore the number 1 in the art piece, for it evokes monotheism, phallocentrism, and the beginning of a series, as in a series of demands, like the Ten Commandments. The 1 announces that we are about to be scolded, warded off, or lectured.

And yet the 1 is placed in this piece of art, not at the art’s center, but at a margin–and that margin actually constitutes the center for all writing (at least writing that is done left to right). The 1’s placement locates the beginning of writing (the upper left hand of a page). It delivers itself up as the first inscription of an author; a parent; a mysterious and menacing deity stirring an inky void.

The first commandment of this Other who is not your mother is masculine in tone, adamant, confident: LANGUAGE IS NOT TRANSPARENT. No doubt here. Its other possibility is rejected emphatically (language is transparent). Its black-and-white mentality announces a dogmatic and dominating deity–yet also an opaque one.

And there are two very tiny periods in this proclamation–one after the 1, and one after TRANSPARENT, acting like bullet holes in support of those capped letters, and this brings our attention to the scattered bullet-like holes at the tearing point, bleeding ink.

So this is the line of dissolve, dissolution, running; a time of undoing; of Dali’s melting clocks. Here’s the image again.

And here are Dali’s clocks.

The Persistence of Memory.jpg

Seeing that vs. seeing as: aspect seeing. One more way to look at Bochner’s art piece is in light of aspect seeing. Aspect seeing is something that fascinated the great philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, his favorite example being this rabbit-duck image:

So which is it, a rabbit or duck? Wittgenstein saw this image as illustrating an important distinction between seeing that vs. seeing as, and such a distinction goes well with the idea that things and language do not speak for themselves—they do not transparently mean one thing, which they announce of themselves. Rather, they are in need of interpretation, and are thus connected to everything else in the cosmos (for the truth is the whole). And therefore, to echo Walt Whitman’s description of himself, they are “large,” containing “multitudes” of aspects to be noticed, interpretations to be proferred, and emphases to be placed.

Here’s an example of Walt Whitman thinking large about the grass, not seeing it like American conservatives see the Constitution (as univocal and speaking for itself, and in possession of an original intent not to be played with). Whitman sees the grass as something subject to interpretation; to free association; to transformation via the human metaphorical imagination:

A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full

hands;

How could I answer the child?. . . .I do not know what it

is any more than he.

I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful

green stuff woven.

Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,

A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropped,

Bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners, that we

may see and remark, and say Whose?

Or I guess the grass is itself a child. . . .the produced babe

of the vegetation.

Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,

And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow

zones,

Growing among black folks as among white,

Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the

same, I receive them the same.

And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.

And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves. Isn’t that a gorgeous line? And notice that Whitman does with the grass what this blog post does with Bochner’s art piece, turning it about as one might turn a diamond, noticing different refractions of light coming off of it (now let’s see it this way, now that way)–akin to the free associating done when gazing upon a Rorschach card.

Rorschach blot 01.jpg

Is it a bat? A pelvic girdle? Depending on your contingent psychology and history, you might have been primed for any number of things to leap out at you on the first glance. And more would jump out at you with some lingering. And should someone point out just one way of seeing it–“It’s definitely a bat!”–you might well object, saying, “There are many ways of looking at it.”

So it is with Bochner’s piece of modern art. The pleasure is in the unhurried lingering.

Bochner’s piece invites delight in play; delight in its mix of ambiguities, form, words, and randomness–the numerous ways it submits itself to seeing as. I’ve suggested for this piece, among others, a man without a head, a chalkboard, a crucifixion, a black wing, and a zombie. I’ll offer another: a magician’s table, with the spell-casting effects of language exposed.

This latter way of seeing implies that language’s seductive magic is protected behind a black table cloth of essentialist rhetoric and authority. The art piece’s single sentence, scrawled like graffiti on the cloth itself, then functions, like Wittgenstein’s duck-rabbit, at one and the same time, to expose language’s trick and to protest against it (“language is not transparent”). Lastly, it suggests Toto from the Wizard of Oz having become a bulldog, not drawing the table’s drapery back, but biting it off and chomping it down.

Art and pareidolia. From the vantage of science and critical thinking, pareidolia is bad. You don’t want to wrongly attribute to things properties that aren’t objectively there, such as seeing Jesus in a piece of toast, or alien monuments on Mars that are in fact the products of angle and shadow.

But with art, association and metaphor–“This is that!”–are, in many respects, the ballgame. It’s okay to play with art: to engage in forms of interpretation that might amount, in other contexts, to pareidolia and overinterpretation. Art, after all, is located in the world, and absent a full and final interpretation of the world–which only a transcendent being outside of time, like God, could possibly know or offer up–the world is in need of perspective, and perspectives are naturally prolific for beings like us, for we shift in space and time. Our lives are like that face on Mars. They are seen and experienced at one angle in one moment, at another angle in the next. We are positioned in the universe to apprehend angles. We are not gods, beyond space and time. So there’s always some new vantage from which we are looking, and this vantage arrives afresh in each moment, as the sun when it moves over the surface of Mars, casting its novel shadows.

So it’s okay to see more in a piece of art than an artist like Bochner originally knew or intended. The artist, after all, launched his art from a vantage–a port–and sent it into the Sea of Time. He could not possibly know where it might drift from there in its meaning. Frank Kermode, the literary critic, once argued in The New Republic that this is perhaps the central insight of postmodernism: that there is always more in a work than an artist or author knows or intends. So what is said about an artifact or text reveals as much about the interpreter, and the interpreter’s concerns, as about the artifact or text itself.

This is not to say that interpretation is wide open and infinite, indifferent to reality, context, or data. Vantages, after all, appear as epiphanies of interpretation in relation to facts or factoids (things taken to be facts) on the ground. It matters, for instance, what the artist says (if anything) about his or her own work. That can narrow interpretation. And it matters what we think we know–and what we put in the category of not knowing.

Any room for hope? In terms of vantage then, this has been, on balance, a bleak interpretation of what can certainly be treated plausibly as a bleak piece of art–and yet there is room for flipping the energies here to hope, for while it is true that time is a kind of crucifixion, and there is no resurrection in Bochner’s piece in the sense of life ever overcoming death, it is in the realm of time, as Jacques Derrida was fond of emphasizing, that possibility nevertheless survives. The future is uncertain, and language is uncertain, but in that very uncertainty is the space for choice, preserved memory, love, imagination, progress, justice, life–and hope. If Bochner has given us an image of the inhuman Other, unleashed like a Golem from the plain intention of its author, into a life of its own–he has also given us a reminder that it is in time, not abstract eternity, where blood can actually flow, for good and ill; where a gap between ground and flight, past and future, language and meaning, open up and make way, like John the Baptist, for the announcement of fresh-coming existence; where memory, imagination, and interpretation can actually have a chance to survive–and surprise us.

So life provides no guarantees–but, behold! In this piece of art is the declaration of the Baptizer (Saussure?) of the arrival of our ironic modern trinity (signifier, signified, referent), ready for judgment and interpretation in time. So let the Wittgensteinian (language) games begin? Let the wine, blood, and words flow? Go with the flow?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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