Against Efficiency

West Coast012

“Their work is to mind the garden and raise food—not for me, as they imagine, but for themselves. They wouldn’t do it at all if I didn’t make them. And of course for a garden you want water. There is a beautiful spring about half a mile away up the hill. And from that spring there flows a stream which comes right past the garden. All I asked them to do was to take their water from the stream instead of trudging up to the spring with their buckets two or three times a day and tiring themselves out besides spilling half of it on the way back. But they wouldn’t see it. In the end they refused point blank.”

“Are they as stupid as all that?” asked Lucy.

The Magician sighed. “You wouldn’t believe the troubles I’ve had with them. A few months ago they were all for washing up the plates and knives before dinner: they said it saved time afterwards. I’ve caught them planting boiled potatoes to save cooking them when they were dug up. One day the cat got into the dairy and twenty of them were at work moving all the milk out; no one thought of moving the cat.”

—C.S. Lewis, Voyage of the Dawn Treader

How does one look at an artwork efficiently? How does one make work efficiently, transmit ideas with the minimum amount of noise, or read a poem in a labour-saving or cost-effective way? More imperatively—why would anybody mistake this for a good idea?

There’s a strong focus on ‘understanding’ art. One does not want to be the last to get the joke—especially if the art is very serious. The artwork proliferates in many ways both before and beyond itself, and writing around it or through it is part of its unfolding. It is tempting, for the writer, to try to ‘get’ it for everyone else: for their interpretation to synthesise object(s) and aura into something more easily digested. The rule of parsimony in scientific discourse—which pervades other modes of writing—is congruous with Occam’s Razor: that the simplest explanation is usually the best.

Art critics inhabit the difficult interstitial space of translating work into linear modes of reading; but one of the pleasures of using language is its porosity, the connective tissue between art and the (non-present) reader. The attempt to succinctly pin down each and every element of a work speaks to a writer’s lack of trust in all concerned parties: trying to fill the hole at the centre of understanding and knowledge.

In translation, the object can and frequently does become synecdochical—in which one aspect of the thing comes to stand for the thing itself. Hegel: the beginning of knowledge is made to pass for actual knowing. To describe a work in words is to transliterate it, not truly translate it, with translation being a process of ongoing negotiation, the almost discussed by Umberto Eco. Perhaps the simplest way to combat this is to make like any good journalist and ensure the use of more than one source—de-monumentalising the role of the critic—whilst knowing that all of those sources are fallible and any picture made up of either one or many will be holey.

One wonders whether art needs to get got in the first place.

Conceptual transparency can become akin to overexposure: reducing art to a code that needs deciphering, merely a convoluted way of saying something simple. As if it could be de-tensioned and made orderly for the purpose of more economical stimulation.

“The notion that the simpler procedure is preferable because one would be foolish if they did more work than they had to is probably a pathological outgrowth of the industrial revolution.” The tendency to linearise content for the sake of more efficient, transactional understanding should be resisted at all costs. If something can be understood instantly, it is meaningless, cf. Baudrillard: if one were to travel to outer space and arrive in an instant, then the journey was useless. [paraphrase]

Art, by its nature, is non-essential. To write about art is frequently to purpose it for the sake of dialogue and information transmission, essentially using prosthetic logic as a tool for understanding. Art functions best as the accursed share—that which is borne out of play. To enter into exchange with work is to use a different mindset than that which created it—enforcing mechanical structure on organic forms.

How to talk about art without reducing it. How to let it persist in remaining hidden, without talking about it persuasively, without farming or mining—allowing inconsistencies within text. How a text can be both one and many. How to let yourself contradict yourself. Polyphony of voices. How allowing multiples in the one text is a way of rejecting ‘taming’. How to acknowledge the aporia within a text that describes a work. How to talk around a work and rub shoulders with it without defining it. How to resist projecting a ‘united front’. How the gift has at its heart an indeterminacy, irreconcilability, and internal contradiction, and how we can use this model in framing. This is not a manifesto, but perhaps an illumination of the possibility for interesting alternatives, false interpretations, semantic labyrinths, and conceptual culs-de-sac.

Regarding relevance, success, primacy, efficiency—art, and by extension art writing, shouldn’t need to have too much to do with these. As a decidedly non-logical mode of inquiry, art practice doesn’t necessarily have to follow capitalist modes of thought, a “desire for the elevation of one mode of expression over all those others” such as thinking that art (and its unsettled intermediary, criticism) need to assume primacy in cultural imagination, as if they must always be universally vital and relevant. Art is already an excess, already wasteful, already a non-essential in a system of being that requires inefficiency to stabilise it, and is always already ignoring the straightest lines of desire.


[1] Taussig, Michael (1993). Mimesis & Alterity. Routledge.
[2] Eco, Umberto (2003). Mouse or Rat – Translation as Negotiation.
[3] Arnheim, Rudolf (1971). Entropy and Art: An essay on disorder and order. University of California Press.
[4] Bolina, Jaswinder (2014). The Writing Class.